Disney Pixars latest short film – Sanjay’s Super Team
Pixar’s philosophy may be to draw the stories out of their artists, but after 15 feature films, the animation leviathan has never created a central character who wasn’t white. That’s changed with Sanjay’s Super Team: the first Pixar film directed by a person of Indian heritage, and the first to put a person of colour at its heart.
The seven-minute-long film is being shown in cinemas ahead of Pixar’s latest release, The Good Dinosaur, and, like other curtain-raisers The Birds and, most recently, Lava, Sanjay’s Super Team tugs at the heartstrings with no dialogue at all. Here’s how it came into being:
Sanjay Patel, the writer and director of Sanjay’s Super Team, was born to Gujarati parents who bought and settled in the Lido Motel, a rest stop off the old Route 66 highway in California. He has worked at Pixar for 20 years as an animator and story artist on films such as A Bug’s Life, Ratatouille and Toy Story 3.
In his spare time, Patel illustrates graphic novels based on Hindu culture, including The Little Book of Hindu Deities. Seeing these bright, engaging books and other illustrations Patel had based on the religion he grew up around, John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, invited Patel to develop a short along similar lines.
In another first for Pixar, Sanjay’s Super Team announces that it is based on a true story – and shows a photo of Patel and his father at the end of the film to prove it.
Patel originally based his film on a more broad concept, of a little boy rejecting his culture, but was encouraged to make it more personal by both Lasseter and the film’s producer, Nadine Grindle.
So he told the story of his childhood, how, every morning and evening, in the family motel, he and his father sat side-by-side: the latter undertaking his daily meditation, or puja, and the little boy watching the TV. Patel told the Wall Street Journal: “I told John Lasseter that every morning, my dad would pray to his gods and his shrine, and I would pray to my gods, and my shrine, which was the TV and the cartoon superheroes that I worshipped.”
As the animated Sanjay reluctantly gives up his action figure and joins his father, he undergoes a process in five minutes which took the animator Sanjay 30 years: understanding the religion and culture that explained who his father is.
As with most Pixar films, this profound realisation is presented with deft accessibility. Bored by the ceremony, little Sanjay starts daydreaming about superheroes – only these Avengers-style heroes are Vishnu, Hanuman and Durga, three revered Hindu deities.
Patel first pitched the short to Pixar executives in 2012. But he had to overcome his fears for the story to develop.
“I was really reluctant, I was very scared to do it,” Patel told MTV. “Embracing this part of my identity, let alone even talking about my parents culture or their rituals, it just felt like really sacred to me and really personal and really vulnerable. So I was really scared to talk about all of that in such a public way.”
It was Patel’s father, however, who encouraged him to tell their story after he told him his fears. His dad said that as Pixar had supported and educated the filmmaker for two decades, it would be “bad karma to not at least try and do what they’re asking you to do.”
So he did. Now Patel had his story – and the opportunity to remedy the lack of seeing “people who looked like me” on TV and in films growing up – he didn’t want to compromise. Patel told pop culture website Geeks of Doom: “Since I had that opportunity, I [realised I] got to do this man, and I came in like “Dude, John, we are going fully brown, like dark brown.”
Patel insisted on authenticity in other areas, too. Sanjay’s drawings that appear as the credits roll were drawn by the offspring of the crew who made the film (“You can smell kids art, and when it’s not,” Patel explained to Geeks of Doom. “That was really important for me that we end on that note. Which is a kid’s imagination.”). The team also brought in a South Asian dance expert to help the animators get the specifics right when making the deities move on the screen.
After an adolescence spent rejecting his parents’ culture (“I just wanted to fit in … to get rid of my weird name and my weird parents and their funny backgrounds. I was just embarrassed and felt ashamed of being different”) Patel started to learn about his heritage while working at Pixar, a process he said “suddenly completed me. It felt like I found a version of home.”
He relied on books such as the Sanskrit epic poem Ramayana to learn about his background, as well as Seventies Hindu comic books Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Tales) and traditional Indian art, which inspired the superhero-style versions of the Hindu deities in the short.
Patel said he and the team “thought about all the specific choices” they made in representing the deities, “because we knew right away that if we didn’t, we would upset some people. We just wanted to be faithful to the mythology.” However, other connections were made in more subtle ways – such as the ancient tradition of dance and performance – to allow a more liberal interpretation.
For example, Vishnu is blue – as his “dark complexion of water-filled clouds” suggests in traditional scripture – but has two arms, rather than four. Hanuman evokes a gorilla or monkey, a nod to the half-human, half-monkey god of the same name in Hindu tradition, but has green skin instead of the gold or brown he is usually depicted with. In the short, Durga unleashes the tiger she is historically pictured riding and is pink, the colour of her traditional dress, but lacks the 10 arms and weapons she is known for.
Lasseter encouraged the team to “find something to unify all the characters”, so they looked to classical Indian sculptures, and took from them the arch eyebrows, curved notes and almond-shaped eyes that link Sanjay, his father and the deities together.
What did Sanjay’s father think?
Patel’s father continued to be as uninterested in on-screen entertainment as he was when Sanjay was a child, and hadn’t seen any of the films his son had helped to make throughout his career – nor any since The Sound of Music, several decades ago. He had never seen a Pixar film, or any other animated film. And yet, he loved Sanjay’s Super Team.
“I didn’t know how he would respond to animation, let alone animation that was inspired by history between you and me,” Patel explained to the Wall Street Journal. “But we flew him up, and he was super emotional,” he told Geeks of Doom. “Breaking down. I’m like ‘Dad, what are you doing, keep it together.’”
His father, who doesn’t speak English as a first language, summed up the whole film with his thoughts: “Father and son – they look into each other’s eyes and they find a way to compromise.”
Awwww it was very cute.. and set you up for the best Disney Pixar film you will see! Check out yesterdays blog on The Good Dinosaur.
Go see both of these in the cinema now! 🙂