SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM: Superheroes And Hindu Heritage

Pixar gets personal with its latest short.

It’s become commonplace to expect a short before an animated Disney feature, a Hollywood tradition we haven’t seen in a while, but one that originated almost a century ago. Like a B-side to an EP, these shorts usually feature smaller, more intimate works, allowing the studio’s secondary and tertiary animators the opportunity to showcase their talents in front of films opening all across the globe. They’re usually broad and caricatured, sometimes featuring musical romance between bizarrely gender-coded anthropomorphic objects (umbrellas, volcanoes, you name it) but no matter what, they always seem to have a personal stamp on them.

The same holds true for Sanjay’s Super Team, which draws from the idea of tradition itself and how it functions in the modern world, tackling biculturalism through the eyes of a young first generation American. Director Sanjay Patel spoke to USA Today about the film. In the interview, he mentions a couple of aspects of his own upbringing that influenced the story:

The Disney/Pixar short film Sanjay's Super Team begins with a scene similar to Patel's own San Bernardino upbringing. Sanjay is glued to the TV and Dad interrupts by ringing his bell for morning meditation.

"I knew exactly what that meant: 'Turn off the TV, Sanjay, and get your tail over here. We're going to chant and count mala beads for half an hour,' " Patel recalls, laughing. "And I'm like, 'I don't really want to do that. I really want to watch Voltron.’ "

Yet the little Sanjay in Super Team finds something cooler than his superhero show when he joins his father: Three Hindu deities come alive to take care of a pesky monster.

Patel also speaks of the constant cultural pull & push he experienced as a child, growing up with the influence of superheroes and other distinctly American media, alongside tales of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, and reconciling those two seemingly diametrically opposed cultures was a big part of why he wanted to make this film. While they might seem mutually exclusive, superheroes have always had ties to mythology, and Hinduism is ripe for visual storytelling. In fact, Hindu scripture has been translated to fit the comic medium both in India (the Amar Chitra Katha line) as well as in the United States (Grant Morrison’s 18 Days) and as the author of the article suggests, the trio of the blue-skinned protector Vishnu, the loyal monkey king Hanuman, and the warrior goddess Durga are akin to a lineup of Hindu Avengers, or perhaps DC’s Trinity, comprising Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.

For Patel however, the comparison wears thin once you move beyond the superficial. “I kind of have an insider’s point of view so I see them a bit differently,” he says, before going on to talk about his collaboration with Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna (Life of Pi) and the film’s musical influences, primarily the bansuri, a wooden flute normally associated with lord Krishna, a re-incarnation of Vishnu. “It's a choice that only somebody who really understood the culture would make and something for sure my dad would really appreciate.”

Patel spent much of his childhood rejecting his parents’ culture before finally learning to embrace it as an adult, so his work on this short feels like it could be somewhat cathartic. Not just for him, but for kids growing up with similar struggles and questions of identity. Producer Nicole Paradis Grindle says it “very clearly comes from a different cultural place than all the other stories we've told before,” and both she and Patel will likely have more to say about the film at San Diego Comic Con this weekend. It isn’t often that a short gets its own panel, but this one feels like it could be something special. If you’re attending the convention and find yourself with an open spot in your schedule, make sure to head to the Indigo Ballroom at 11:00am for “The Super Story Behind the Pixar Short Sanjay’s Super Team” on Thursday, July 9th.

Sanjay’s Super Team can be seen in front of The Good Dinosaur, opening November 25th.