Sanjay’s Super Team is unlike anything Pixar has ever done, both visually and thematically, and I wanted to watch it again the moment it was over. While every film from the studio feels personal in some way, this is one where the main character not only shares his name with the director, but quite literally is the director, or at least a younger version of him. It functions as both time capsule and time machine, focusing on a specific moment of Sanjay Patel’s childhood, but also using that moment to explore his lifelong struggle with cultural identity as an Indian American raised in San Bernardino. While the plot follows a young boy for seven minutes, the story it tells spans decades, culminating in a personal catharsis that was the creation of the film itself.
Sanjay Patel is a quiet, behind-the-scenes type. The film’s producer, Nicole Grindle, usually does more of the talking. Sanjay’s worked in the animation department at Pixar since A Bug’s Life back in 1998, and he plans to go back to it now that he’s directed his first short. There’s something very unassuming about him, and he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would jump into a conversation and talk your ear off. That is, of course, until you touch on the right topic, at which point his energy and enthusiasm light up the room. During our interview at Pixar Studios last month, that topic happened to be my home city of Mumbai, and while discussing our favourite locales may have eaten into my time, it was fascinating to see the kind of unbridled enthusiasm he now has for certain Indian things and places. It wasn’t always that way for Sanjay. In fact, he grew up resenting parts of his family’s culture, which is what set the stage for the film to begin with.
A young boy watches his Saturday morning cartoons at one end of the room, while his father sits in front of a Hindu shrine at the other. These are their respective temples. Sanjay accentuates his worship by holding onto an action figure, playing along with the movements of his favourite cartoon characters. His father rings a ceremonial bell, signaling the start of his prayers and the end of Sanjay’s time in front of the television. Sanjay however, isn’t having any of it. Why would he worship ancient idols that have no meaning to him, when he could worship the superheroes on TV?
What was your first introduction to the Vedas and the Hindu epics?
Sanjay:Well, it was very much what this little boy was going through. There was no introduction whatsoever, it was literally like ‘Sit down, dad’s doing this, and you need to join me.’ You know, I could recite the Gayatri Mantra to you; it’s in Sanskrit, I have no idea what it means. There were pictures of all these deities, there was no explanation. There was just ‘We’re going to sit here, this is what we’re doing’ just like I was sitting in the car and we would drive to some place. It was just that.
Nicole:Because you were in San Bernardino.
Sanjay:Yeah, and there was nothing in the culture! I didn’t have to go to a Christian church, but there was so much culture that would explain Christianity to me. So much. So. Much. Believe you me. I could look at my dollar bill and get a little bit of an idea of what Christian traditions were.
I know what you mean, I went to a Christian school but had a Hindu upbringing, so there was kind of a disconnect there. Also, there are a lot of similarities between our modern superheroes and these kinds of characters that in a way draw from central Asian mythology. As kids we’re obviously not consciously aware of it, but is that something you found playing in to the creation of the looks of the characters now?
Sanjay:Yeah, big time. I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell - he has this great book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and he sort of points out these archetypes specifically. And he starts from these root mythologies and cultures and stories about these deities, and how that’s sort of led to The Hero’s Journey and what constitutes a hero, be it a superhero or any other protagonist. Anyway, absolutely, I was very much trying to be as specific and as mindful of how to depict these deities with as much reverence and respect as possible. I felt like so long as we educate ourselves about it, I had done so much of it., then I feel like we could break those rules. First I sort of forced my team to be like ‘We need to know at least those rules before we start monkeying with them.’
The team’s regard for the rules before then breaking them isn’t limited to the nature of the deities. There’s a departure from the Pixar norm at every stage, especially when young Sanjay is magically transported to another realm, where he’s confronted by a demon in an ancient temple, and the Gods in his father’s shrine come to life to save him. Vishnu, the God of preservation, Hanuman, the ape-like devotee of Lord Rama, and Durga, the Goddess of power. Interestingly enough, their designs (which feel like something out of Tron: Legacy) already stem from an origin that’s a cultural hybrid: Goa Trance album covers. The low horizon lines and simulations of wide lenses make them feel like giants towering over this young boy, and the enclosed environment start to feel absolutely massive. Each character was designated a specific style of classical Indian dance (which the animators also learned first hand!) and their movements follow the rules of their respective form. There’s grace to their motions, but the action pulsates with a chaotic energy reminiscent of Japanese anime, and there’s also a moment of enlightenment that’s distinctly 2001, both visually, as well as in how cosmic and transformative it feels.
Even the music feels vast, with Sanjay’s father’s chants and the ringing of his ceremonial bell echoing off the walls of the temple, like something out of a Ron Fricke documentary. A fear I tend to have when it comes to depictions of India or Indianness in the West is music that borders on cliché, like a couple of sitar notes to set the scene with no understanding of why they’re there (also see: call to prayer while establishing a Middle Eastern setting). However, composer Mychael Danna turned out to be a perfect fit for Sanjay’s story. Married to a Hindu woman and raising their two sons* in the culture, he understands the significance of each sound and instrument, even making use of the bansuri, a wooden flute associated with Vishnu’s seventh incarnation, Lord Krishna.
*His son Arjun shares his name with Sanjay’s son
Amidst all the vastness however, there are layers of intricate detail to be found (the movement of the deities’ jewelry as they do battle is a particular delight) and a number of subtle moments stand out as well. The film is without dialogue, but images like Sanjay’s father hanging his head in disappointment when Sanjay refuses to embrace his culture (and by proxy, him) or the way his eyes light up when he finally comes around, speak a thousand words. Even the mere placement of Sanjay’s action figure in the scene speaks to the various levels of iconography at play, like when his father takes it from him and sits him down for his prayers.
Something I found interesting was the placement of the superhero toy in the shrine.
That was something I feel like would’ve been a very, very conscious choice.
Nicole: I’m so glad you asked that.
Sanjay: Well, you know it was a very conscious choice to have the boy have an idol. And then to have that idol be taken by his father and placed in the shrine was always the choice that we wanted. I always wanted to have this tension between ‘MY Gods’ versus ‘YOUR Gods,’ that was exactly what was at stake growing up for me, between me and my dad. ‘YOUR Gods are stupid, MY Gods are important!’ That’s how I felt. And it was very much a clash of wills, that’s all it was. And I really wanted this moment when the boy has to shatter his idol to ring this diya [oil lamp], and that’s what dispels or vanquishes this malevolent force. And then the boy’s idol is returned back to him from Vishnu himself, and that was an important gesture as well for us.
Nicole: Because you can have both.
That was another thing I wanted to ask you about, because the story is about reconciliation of different cultures, but in a way that particular moment almost feels like a re-reconciliation of the old and the new, the modern superhero literally being passed down to us by the mythology.
Sanjay: I like that one. Absolutely. That’s great, the ancient mythology, the first superhero passing on the modern tradition.
The confluence of Western and Eastern culture can yield fascinating results, as it most certainly has with Sanjay’s Super Team, but another interesting element to all this is one you might not expect: Russian born Jewish-American animator Genndy Tartakovsky, the man behind Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack and the original Clone Wars miniseries. He didn’t have any personal hand in the film, but his influence is made pretty explicit when Sanjay is sitting in front of the television and the superheroes he’s watching are designed in his signature style. Patel grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons in the ‘80s, but since much of modern American animation is influenced by Tartakovsky, he chose that template to make the scenes more relatable to the kids of today. On top of that you have the fact that it’s filled with action but not a single line of dialogue (something Tartakovsky did in several episodes), but more so than just the film itself, even Patel’s Ramayana book seems to take its cues from Tartakovsky’s work, but with a bit of a South Asian twist:
The Ramayana is one of the two most popular Hindu epics, and a deep well for visual storytelling (there are some really great comics and animated films based on it), and that’s the case with Hinduism in general. Prior to the Ramayana, Patel began illustrating his own series of children’s books that acted as introductions to Hindu Gods and Goddesses. It was here that he finally started to explore the stories and characters of his youth. He was still working for Pixar at the time, so there was a period in his life that was devoted to both Western and Eastern cultures, a simultaneity of ancient and modern sensibilities that led to the creation of this unique short film. That’s quite an amazing thing, especially from someone who claims to have once been ashamed of his own identity.
It’s so specific, but it’s so universal at the same time. I know it’s specific to my experience and to [Sanjay’s], but I feel like anyone could be able to relate to something like this.
Sanjay: Luckily, lots of people have reflected that back to us.
Nicole: Within the studio we represent a lot of different traditions, and people will say ‘That was my experience with Judiasm’ or ‘That was my experience with Buddhism.’
So what’s your relationship with Indian and Hindu culture now that you’ve done all this digging?
Sanjay: It’s always been impossible for me to connect to it, and it’s because I’m such a product of the West. And so it never felt like I had a way to inhabit this skin or my identity or my name until I found the art. And once I found the art, that’s the badge I wear now. I love my Indian food just like anybody else, but I love the art, and I love the myths, and I love the history, so I found my place. And again, it’s all in service of the art. I love the philosophy as interpreted through the miniature paintings, I love the history as interpreted through the art. That’s the badge of Indian identity that I feel satisfied to wear.
Sanjay’s Super Team opens in front of The Good Dinosaur on November 25th.