Sanjay Patel spent his childhood at the Lido Motel, run by his Gujarati family, in San Bernardino back in the 1980s. Like many immigrant children, Patel learnt to have dual identities. He participated in the daily aarti prayers with his father, and he watched Looney Tunes cartoons, read Superman comics and played with Transformers action figures.
As a Pixar Animation Studios artist and star animator, Patel combined the sum total of his experiences to direct the short film Sanjay's Super Team, which Pixar released ahead of its feature The Good Dinosaur. In June, the film will premiere at the Annecy International Film Festival in France.
My parents were devoted to their prayers. But there was no dialogue about what we were doing... I found it very boring as a child.
The seven-minute animated film captures the connection and the conflict of his balancing act between the two cultures.
"My parents were devoted to their prayers. But there was no dialogue about what we were doing during the daily meditation so I found it very boring as a child. Sitting quiet and being still for a long time was very boring," says Patel, 41, who joined Pixar in 1996 as an animator on A Bug's Life. He has also worked on Toy Story 3, "Monsters, Inc, and The Incredibles.
"When I got older I understood what my father was doing and what it meant. But that time, I wanted to just read my American comics and think about superheroes. I wanted my name to be Travis, not Sanjay."
Patel says he was "inspired by cartoons and comics." As a child, he was isolated and alone for long periods. His dad worked long hours, his mother suffered from schizophrenia and he had an older brother, who helped out at the motel.
The film begins with a young child (Sanjay) watching cartoons and eating cereal in a vanilla room. He is startled out of his fantasy world when his father jingles the temple bell, inviting or rather ordering the kid to join in the daily prayers and meditation.
An outwardly respectful Sanjay joins in the prayers but begins daydreaming, his superhero figure in hand. In the dazzlingly colourful vision, he imagines Hanuman, Durga and Vishnu as superheroes who triumph over evil.
I watched the short film and I was delighted by the way the animation became vivid and ended on a cosmic high, as Sanjay at last understood his father's devotion to the Hindu Gods.
My Dad is very proud. He immediately understood the importance of the father and son coming together to form an understanding.
Patel says his father has not seen a film in 30 years. But he saw this one with his son.
"My Dad is very proud. He immediately understood the importance of the father and son coming together to form an understanding. He was extremely moved and so was I," Patel says. "I am proud and thankful that Disney made this film."
But his views on religion have not changed much.
"I learned that forcing someone to practice a religion against their will isn't pleasant. In hindsight I'm extremely grateful for what my father exposed me to. And I feel proud to have returned to what he was trying to share with me on my own terms and in my own way. The greatest thing I've learned from my father's practice is his devotion to what he loves, not what he can gain."
In a sense, the inspiration for superheroes was right there in his family. His father spends a large part of his day devoted to his wife's care and when Patel didn't want to stay on and work in the motel, his brother shouldered the burden of the family business, just like Hanuman.
Patel, who lives in Oakland with his fiancée and two-year-old son, studied animation at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the California Institute of Arts. He was specially invited to work at Pixar after recruiters saw his student film Cactus Cooler.
As a child, Patel yearned to see brown skinned people like him in movies and in books. Today, there are some famous Indians working in America, like Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn and Priyanka Chopra but in Patel's time there was a visible void.
I want to normalise and bring a young brown boy's story to the pop culture zeitgeist.
"If I could, I would go back to the 1980s and give my younger self this short," Patel said. "I want to normalise and bring a young brown boy's story to the pop culture zeitgeist. To have a broad audience like Pixar's see this ... it is a big deal. I'm so excited about that."
Patel says he was always passionate about Indian culture and wrote books that mirrored his fascination with Hindu mythology. His first book, The Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow, was published in 2006.
That was followed by Ramayana: Divine Loophole in 2010. The next year he published The Big Poster Book of Hindu Deities. And then a children's book, Ganesha's Sweet Tooth, that he co-authored with Emily Haynes.
But movies are the medium Patel is going to stick with and he's already back at the drawing board, creating his next script. I can't tell you what it is because I am sworn to secrecy but I can tell you this, it's going to very good.
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