In Sanjay’s Patel’s “mostly true story”, three Hindu Gods — Vishnu, Durga and Hanuman — are friends, pitted against a demon. The four main characters in the film are not just mythological characters but superheroes who are also trained in classical dance. They form an important element of his childhood imagination. His world otherwise was full of comics and cartoons, constantly in conflict with his father’s Hindu prayer practices.
When the 88th Academy Awards are announced today at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, the story of these mythological characters and their origin offers Patel a massive chance to take the golden knight home. His autobiographical Pixar short film, Sanjay’s Super Team, is nominated in the Best Animation (Short) category. Patel is one of the three Indian names (others being Asif Kapadia (Amy) and Aditya Sood (Producer, The Martian)) nominated at the Oscars this year. “I am pretty shy. The idea of being nominated or being under the spotlight, is a little overwhelming,” says Patel in a phone conversation from Los Angeles.
Growing up in a Gujarati immigrant family that owned a motel in San Bernardino, California, Patel always found himself at loggerheads with his father’s traditions, which comprised elaborate Hindu rituals of praying to the gods and goddesses, mostly when he wanted to watch superhero cartoons. His discomfort with his Indian identity added to the misery. “I really wanted a Caucasian name and to fit in. It was hard because in the ’80s, if you were growing up in an Indian-American family, the perception was stereotypical and kind of embarrassing. The truth of the matter was that. I wanted to run as far away from my parents and the community I belonged to,” says Patel, who constantly excused himself from social community gatherings.
He found his refuge in art. Drawing, illustrations, comic books, animations, and the world of imagination it offered, caught his attention. “It wasn’t very popular among South Asian kids but I was good at it. There weren’t many, if not any, Indian kids at art school too. But I realised this is what I wanted to do,” says Patel, who went on to be an animator on popular Pixar films such as Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Cars, Toy Story 3 and Monsters University, among others. He also did extensive storyboarding for Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles and Toy Story 2. “Every one of those projects helped. I was honing my craft in terms of visually telling stories, someone else’s stories. It was a great education and practice for 10-15 years. When the time came to tell my own story, I was ready,” says Patel.
It wasn’t until a decade ago that Patel, after being burnt out by European and Indian art, began looking for other inspiration. And he found some at popular rave parties where electronic dance music was finding foothold. “A lot of imagery they used was from Hinduism. They also had a lot of symbolism from mantras. I suddenly saw my parents’ culture staring me in the face and I was loving it. That’s when I realised that it was cool to explore that side of my identity,” says Patel, who, around the same time, came across a book on Indian miniature paintings. “The imagery was exactly like the one I had seen in my house. But I never understood the characters and their stories. It was through the vehicle of fine art that I was finally able to read the stories and understand the pictures that were a backdrop to my parents’ life. I realised how these characters were so universal,” says Patel, who soon embarked on a journey he never imagined, returning with a new perspective.
The research included bringing a classical dancer from Berkeley on board along with many visits to the Asian Arts Museum. “The deities have come alive through theatre for many years in India. We assigned each deity with a specific dance tradition. Vishnu does Bharatanatayam, Kalaripayattu for Hanuman and Kathakali for Durga. The whole thing couldn’t have had a generic, stereotypical western style,” says Patel, who made sure that he was sensitive to how important these stories and symbols are to certain people.
“I don’t practise Hinduism. I grew up with it and I know how much it means to my parents. It’s not out of political correctness but my love for them that extends my research and respect for the characters. There is still a way to be playful and invite people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to appreciate these characters,” says Patel, whose father — who had not seen a film in 40 years and didn’t know much of his son’s work at Pixar — recently saw the film.
“I patiently waited for his reaction and he said, ‘It’s a story about learning to compromise’. And I thought he finally understood me, learning to respect each other’s culture, something he would have faced as an immigrant,” says Patel, who is now back to his regular work at Pixar and is storyboarding one of the projects. “It’s nice to have pressure off for a bit,” says Patel.