Pixar’s Sanjay Patel turns culture clash into harmony in short film

November 17, 2015

“Sanjay’s Super Team” will screen ahead of Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” which will hit theaters on Nov. 25

Concept art from Pixar's latest short film "Sanjay's Super Team" playfully illustrates the culture clash that regularly occurs among immigrant families in America. (Disney/Pixar)

Concept art from Pixar’s latest short film “Sanjay’s Super Team” playfully illustrates the culture clash that regularly occurs among immigrant families in America. (Disney/Pixar)

Sanjay Patel is photographed at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Sanjay Patel is photographed at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

By Brian Han

One day back in 2012, Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter strolled down the halls of the studio’s headquarters in Emeryville, Calif. when something caught his eye.

A series of paintings hanging on the walls playfully depicted ancient Hindu mythology.

He loved it. So much so that he wanted to grant the creator of the artwork the full resources of Pixar to share a story with the world.

Lasseter, who has been with the company since its inception in 1986, is one of the driving forces behind classics such as “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life” while overseeing pretty much everything that comes out of the studio.

So it would be fair to assume that as soon as he tracked down the artist, the project would hit the ground running.

But Sanjay Patel, a veteran animator who had been working with Pixar since 1996, said no.

Lasseter asked again a little while later.

And he got the same answer.

“Just the fact that John saw his artwork in the halls here and said I want you to make a film. That’s not always the way we kick off our short films,” said Pixar producer Nicole Grindle who worked alongside Patel. “There’s usually a different process that goes into choosing someone to lead our films, but Sanjay was handpicked.”

It wasn’t until the fourth time that the 20-year studio veteran changed his mind.

“I had my guard up when I was approached,” Patel told the Korea Times. “My experience growing up, trying to juggle two worlds, that took me a while to figure out, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to share that with the world.”

He spent his childhood in the states raised by his immigrant parents during the 1980s. It was a clash of cultures. One moment he would be watching Saturday morning cartoons and the next he would be engaged in puja – a daily Hindu prayer and meditation practice alongside his father.

“When I was growing up, I liked the same things everyone else did, but I was always the ‘brown kid,” he recalled of his childhood spent in San Bernardino, Calif. “Elementary school, high school, then art school. I always felt conscious of being an outsider.”

Patel’s first pitch for the short film evolved from a child in India learning to appreciate his culture, to something much more intimate and true to his own experience. It became a story about a relationship between an immigrant father and his son, which took place in America instead.

“And then [John Lasseter] asked me about my dad and I told him more about the roots of how I grew up,” he said “The mentorship I got from John is that he gave me so much confidence to tell the truth about my dad’s experience.”

The short film opens with a setting straight out of Patel’s life to which any immigrant family could probably relate, at least to a certain degree. A young boy glued to a television, while the father engages in some kind of cultural practice, which in this case is puja.

Then the father makes the boy join him, which is met at first with heavy reluctance and eventual compliance.

What follows is quite a leap in the imagination.

The boy enters a psychedelic technicolor dream world filled with Hindu gods resembling his favorite super heroes.

In Pixar Animation Studios' short “Sanjay's Super Team,” a first-generation Indian-American boy is absorbed in the world of cartoons and comics, while his father tries to draw him into the traditions of his Hindu practice. An awe-inspiring adventure leads to a new perspective they can both embrace. “Sanjay’s Super Team” opens in theaters on Nov. 25, 2015, in front of Disney•Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur.” (Disney/Pixar)

In Pixar Animation Studios’ short “Sanjay’s Super Team,” a first-generation Indian-American boy is absorbed in the world of cartoons and comics, while his father tries to draw him into the traditions of his Hindu practice. An awe-inspiring adventure leads to a new perspective they can both embrace. “Sanjay’s Super Team” opens in theaters on Nov. 25, 2015, in front of Disney•Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur.” (Disney/Pixar)

You might be asking yourself, “But Pixar prides itself on universal themes that appeal to a wide audience, so where does this fit into that vision?”

Grindle had an answer to that question.

“I can speak as a non-asian and I’m not concerned because I’ve already seen that it has resonated deeply with a lot of people who have already had the chance to see it,” she explained. “The inter-generational thing exists. In this case it’s a cultural thing and for an immigrant I think it’s probably magnified.”

For Patel who created the story and was so involved in its development, he had to trust Lasseter, Pixar’s track record and all the people who worked alongside him.

“I knew that if I believed in it and I liked it and my colleagues here at Pixar liked it, then you know what, we probably had something special on our hands,” he said. “I trust my colleagues here and I felt that if we felt excited about it then I know we’ll make some people really happy.”

But the filmmaker also felt that he needed to aim for something specific. In telling his story, he felt a sense of responsibility toward an Asian American demographic that has long dealt with cultural misrepresentations in American pop culture.

“Absolutely. Absolutely, I considered that angle,” he said. “But it’s not only that, I also feel a great deal of responsibility to my non-Asian friends as well. It became this balancing act of staying true to myself, but presenting it in a way where people who didn’t live this story would still understand it.”

Patel defies the same stereotypes he battles by the way he leads. Often portrayed as submissive and quiet, Asian characters in western film and television have historically taken a back seat to other characters.

When it came to making this film, no one was going to stand in his way.

“Right from the get go this guy knew exactly what he wanted,” Grindle said. “He was incredibly demanding of every single artist who worked at every single stage.”

An example of that?

“He called several of these guys at home regularly at night because he couldn’t sleep, and because he was thinking about something obsessively,” she continued. “The people who worked with him were flattered by that honestly and they wanted to be there for Sanjay night and day.”

When the team completed the project, Patel decided that he needed to share the film with his father. Even after 20 years, he had never seen his son’s work. Not because he didn’t want to, but because Patel wasn’t sure how his father would react.

In Pixar Animation Studios' “Sanjay's Super Team,” a first-generation Indian-American boy whose love for western pop culture comes into conflict with his father’s traditions. He embarks on a journey he never imagined, returning with a new perspective they can both embrace. Directed by Sanjay Patel and produced by Nicole Paradis Grindle, the new short opens in front of Disney-Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur ”on Nov. 25, 2015. (Disney/Pixar)

In Pixar Animation Studios’ “Sanjay’s Super Team,” a first-generation Indian-American boy whose love for western pop culture comes into conflict with his father’s traditions. He embarks on a journey he never imagined, returning with a new perspective they can both embrace. Directed by Sanjay Patel and produced by Nicole Paradis Grindle, the new short opens in front of Disney-Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur ”on Nov. 25, 2015. (Disney/Pixar)

As the credits rolled, the older Patel began crying. They embraced. Something Sanjay admits rarely happens, which added more emotional weight to the situation.

All the years of sacrifice, working at a small motel off Route-66, to support a family the best he could, resulted in his son achieving a dream and finding his identity through his art.

“For the longest time, I couldn’t find a place where I felt I belonged,” he said. “Growing up in America, I always felt different. When I traveled to India a while back, I thought, here’s a chance for me to be around all these people who look just like me. But I still felt like I was on the outside.”

“Even at Pixar after being here so long, you’d think I could call this place home, but I never did. I think it finally took making this short and literally having my name on the short, and then having a photo of me and my dad in the short film to say you know what? I am now part of the quilt that is Pixar. I finally felt like I was included.”

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“Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” and “Sanjay’s Super Team” hits theaters together on Nov. 25.

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