For desi or South Asian American kids, religion and culture can be a confusing part of one’s identity. I remember being acutely aware of my mother’s prayer room—a repurposed walk-in closet—full of pictures of the Hindu Goddess Kali, who wears a necklace of decapitated heads, infused with smoky incense and freshly churned sandalwood paste. If friends came over, I would work extra hard to steer clear of this part of the house, because I had no language to explain how the frightening image was one of power and protection. Kali’s large, fierce eyes had nothing to do with the glowing pictures of Jesus that I might see elsewhere. Yet, along with Kali, my bedtime stories were filled with the magical powers of other Hindu gods and goddesses and their feats in the Hindu epics. It wasn’t anything I talked about at school, but I have to admit that I felt a secret pride that my religion was filled with such fabulous tales.
Animator Sanjay Patel—who grew up in San Bernardino in a Gujarati American family—had a similar experience. Every morning, his father would worship his Hindu idols in a small shrine, while Patel was more caught up with his favorite cartoons and superheroes. Nearly twenty years into a successful career as an animator at Pixar Studios, Patel drew on this early inspiration to create a short, Sanjay’s Super Team, which breaks new ground for the renowned studio and is nominated for an Academy Award. In the film, a young boy—based on Sanjay—imagines an epic battle featuring his father’s deities that helps him gain a new perspective. This work expands on the popular illustrated books that Patel has published including The Little Book of Hindu Deities and Ramayana: Divine Loophole.
Patel and Sanjay’s Super Team producer Nicole Grindle—another Pixar veteran—spoke to me from the studio headquarters in Emeryville, California, about Patel’s path to exploring the Hindu pantheon in animation, how to tell a complicated cultural story in six minutes, and Pixar’s desire for diversity.
CAAM hosts Sanjay Patel and Nicole Grindle on a panel at CAAMFest on March 15, 2016 at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco’s Mission district.
Sanjay, were you always interested in art and animation?
Sanjay Patel: Definitely, from a very early age….An elementary school teacher gave me this hardback book, The Collected Comics of Superman. And in the margins, she wrote: “Sanjay is going to be an amazing artist.” That was my second grade teacher. She wrote this really nice note, and all along the way throughout my education, a lot of teachers pointed it out to me or reflected it back to me that I was going to add up to something in art. I credit that to a lot of it, my teachers really believing in something that I didn’t see straight away.
Did you believe them? Did you know that you wanted to make a career out of this?
SP: For awhile I tried really hard to be a good desi boy and become like an engineer and, you know, be good at math and things like that. I dutifully tried, but somehow, I just couldn’t do it. The drawing was something that just came effortlessly. And so my junior high teacher introduced me to the best teacher at my high school. There were these constant teacher hand-offs, and in high school I met a friend who told me about a school called CalArts that Walt Disney had set up to train his animators and that was the time that I realized that you could actually pursue a career in animation. I would say the rest just fell into place. That was around the first year of high school. I was laserbeam-focused on the character animation program.
I remember seeing your website Ghee Happy and your books featuring Hindu gods and goddesses sometime in the middle of the last decade, and wishing that there was something cool like that when I was a kid. How did that art come about?
SP: The books were absolutely happening when I was working at Pixar. I think it was about 10 years into working at the studio. I hit this burnout period where I was just kind of exhausted with European art and just looking for new inspiration. And a lot of colleagues of mine were making their own picture books and comics and it really got me inspired. I ended up, for the first time, looking at South Asian imagery and painting. I’d seen the imagery growing up, like in my parents house, but I’d never really read any of the myths—so it was through the vehicle of this fine art book that finally showed me the images that were in my parents shrine but it was divorced of the dogma.
It started so I could give stuff to my nieces and nephews, as well as have things from my parents’ culture that I could feel like I identified with that was part of my culture—that was part of this hybrid that was between India and here.
Nicole, can you talk a little bit about how Sanjay’s Super Team came about at Pixar?
Nicole Grindle: As the result of Sanjay’s success with the books, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco asked him to put on a show of his work, two shows actually. The folks at Pixar caught wind of his work and—we have a small gallery where we show Pixar artists personal work—so he was invited to put on a show here at Pixar. And while that show was up, John Lasseter [Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer] saw it and was blown away. He was like, “Sanjay, you have to make a film!”
And normally, we have a process of vetting short films at Pixar. We put out a call to artists at the studio, they do pitches and those get culled down and then folks get to present to John and he picks the finalist. It is a very involved process. And here John was just pushing that aside and saying, “Sanjay, I want you to make a short film,” which is really different and exciting, but because Sanjay had not thrown his hat into the ring to begin with and was not thinking about doing that, it came as something of a shock. He ignored that initial invitation, and I think was asked a second time, and even a third time. (laughs) Finally the President of Pixar Jim Morris asked him to do it. Sanjay was like, “You don’t want to make this film, you don’t want to make a film about the stuff that I want to make a film about,” and Jim said: “No, we do!” We want to make this film about that stuff. I think that’s really great, that Pixar got to the point where they could see that this was a really powerful narrative about material that was really different that we usually do, and that it was really important to make it.
Nicole, as a seasoned producer at Pixar, what was about this story that made it compelling to the studio?
NG: The philosophy here has always been to ask our directors and our creative leadership to dig deep into their own personal experience to tell stories. That’s why we had a story that featured and old man and a little Asian Boy Scout. They are drawing from something really personal and it isn’t your typical animated feature story. To me it seems like Sanjay telling this story makes perfect sense, it grows out of that philosophy. And it is the path the studio wants to take. If we bring in different storytellers that come from different experiences, than we will continue to tell more and more different and surprising stories like this one. Sanjay’s been here a long time so it did make sense that John would turn to him knowing what a talented artist he is and what strong stories he has to tell. And it has been a tremendous experience for people here at the studio to see the reaction the film has gotten. It is great validation that we need to tell more stories like this.
Sanjay, when you finally convinced yourself that this was going to happen. How did you come to this personal story?
I think it initially started with a kid ignoring the stories from his own culture, so it was rooted in my awakening to Indian culture, Indian art, Indian mythology. Even though it was definitely rooted in things that happened to me, it was never so explicitly personal. That was the first note that John gave me when I was telling him about how I grew up. I was showing him a little drawing I did of what my dad did every morning. I did a drawing of him praying at a shrine, and in the same drawing there is little Sanjay, you know, worshipping his Gods that were on the TV. John saw that and was like: “That’s great! Let’s make that. Just tell your story, tell the truth of you and your father.” And that was the first note.
And I can’t tell you how validating that was, you know. Again, the thing that I want to highlight is that just growing up as an immigrant being the only desi kid in my junior high, high school, Cal Arts, you name it….It was just very validating to have someone like John Lasseter say, that history, that story matters. It matters to the point where we want to celebrate it, to the point of making into a computer animated short.
Sanjay, what was the biggest challenge of coming into this role of director?
SP: When I decided to finally take on this challenge, I was really fired up, there was a lot I wanted to say, and definitely a family that I felt like was missing in terms of animation, so I was really excited to have a dark brown protagonist and portray that family with sincerity and have it be genuine, and I was really passionate about having people see the things they might overlook. So despite being really fired up about all this stuff, it was so hard to find the sweet spot between being specific enough to feel that my Indian American friends would feel like I hadn’t watered it down or dumbed it down, or make it instantly understandable so that my American friends would be left behind. So hard to find that sweet spot. So every day there was this huge stress, like: I can’t let down this group because a huge part of my life is based in my community, and a huge part of my life is based in this community in America. It was really a challenge to speak in six or seven minutes about something that is so sacred to so many people around the world and to do it without dialogue and make it instantly getable. That was hard.
NG: That was something we were really stressed out about. It was also the first time Pixar had made something that explicitly represented a religion. So that felt like a minefield, both inside Hinduism and for people in other religions who might have some kind of a reaction to why is Pixar why is Disney making a film on this topic. We had a lot of anxiety about it, and knocking on wood, I feel like so far people have just embraced it as something that it just really exciting and interesting and it has not appeared to offend anybody.
We also felt like it was really important to know that this was Sanjay’s personal story. And so it is harder to criticize when you say whatever experience you’ve had with Hinduism, this is the experience of this little boy who grew up in San Bernardino.
Are there a lot of animators at Pixar from different backgrounds, from Asian American backgrounds? Is it a diverse place to work?
NG: It is a diverse place, but we are working on promoting more diversity among the creative leadership and storytellers. And that is something that everyone is aware of. We have some distance to go in that front, but definitely on the individual contributor level, we are very diverse.
SP: When I look around the studio, it is very diverse. I still long for more voices in the art form that I love, animation. And that’s not just for Pixar, but for the industry in general.
Sanjay, what is next for you?
SP: I went back to storyboarding. It’s just nice to go back and learn again and continue to grow.
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Neelanjana Banerjee is the Managing Editor of Kaya Press.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This interview is made possible by Comcast.
Join director Sanjay Patel and producer Nicole Grindle for an insightful peek behind the curtains of Pixar Animation Studio’s latest Academy Award-nominated short, SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM. In this screening and presentation, the filmmakers will discuss the production process and unique inspiration for this incredibly personal film that features superheroes like you’ve never seen them before. This family-friendly program will include a book signing with Patel.
March 15, 2016 6:30 pm