Sanjay Patel never wanted to make a movie.
That isn't modesty talking. Patel, who's worked as an animator at Pixar for almost two decades, really hadn't considered making a movie when the company approached him about directing what would become Sanjay's Super Team, the short currently playing in theaters in front of The Good Dinosaur.
"I felt like there was just no room," Patel told BuzzFeed News in a recent phone interview from Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville, California. "I was convinced, after being here for so long, that the Pixar brand didn't seem like the right space to do the subject matter that I was interested in, which was mythological stuff from my parents' culture."
Sanjay's Super Team is dialogue-free, like most Pixar shorts, but unlike most Pixar shorts, it's personal — starting with a title card about how it's based on the "mostly true story" of Patel's relationship with his father growing up, and ending with a photo of the two of them. It features a young Sanjay watching superhero cartoons on television when his father insists he join him in daily prayers. The boy is resentful and bored until he imagines a melding of the Hindu gods to whom his dad is paying obeisance and the characters in his shows and action figures, a cultural middle ground where he and his parent can meet.
Patel had, for years, created pop art illustrations about Hindu mythology and the Ramayana on the side, publishing books and putting together art exhibits on his own time. At his day job at Pixar, Patel helped make Toy Story 2, about toys that come to life, The Incredibles, about a super-powered family trying to blend into suburban life, and Ratatouille, about a rat with a passion for haute cuisine — a wide range of stories, but not wide enough for Patel to intuit a place for his own work among them. Which is telling for a company that isn't just famous for making children's films with grownup sophistication and emotional maturity, but also for building contemporary classics out of unexpected themes and characters. Inside Out, the company's other 2015 feature, took place in the mindscape of an adolescent girl — hardly an easy sell in terms of concept.
For it never to have occurred to Patel that Pixar might be interested in the stories he wanted to tell says more about animation in general, and the kinds of things we can end up internalizing as having the broadest appeal. "I never saw any depictions of characters like me, not just at Pixar but the American animation industry in general," said Patel, whose parents are from Gujarat, India, but who did most of his growing up in San Bernardino, California. "I never saw somebody of color reach this opportunity to even tell a story that had a minority represented. I just felt like I got this subtle message that because you don't see yourself reflected in media, you don't matter. Your stories don't matter. I think it's just a subconscious message that you get from pop culture at large."
All of which reinforces what a big deal Sanjay's Super Team is. The animated version of Patel is Pixar's first (human) main character of color, and the film has surely provided some audience members with their first exposure to Hinduism. "I grew up with depictions that were really warped," said Patel. "I think my first brush of it in pop culture was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That didn't bear any resemblance to my father, my mother, or to a community that I saw and went to temple with year after year. It's nice to kind of repair some of that."
2015 has been a big year for Indian and Indian-American visibility onscreen, from Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project getting a second life on Hulu to the debut of Aziz Ansari's critically acclaimed Netflix series Master of None to Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra making a splash on network TV in Quantico. But Sanjay's Super Team feels like it's in a league of its own, because animated films are so formative and filled with the potential to become the literal stuff of young lives, shaping someone's sense of what is normal.
"It starts feeling like we're part of the American patchwork," said Patel, who has a young son of his own. "An animator I know in India just sent me a photo, where he sent the plush doll of little Sanjay to his nephew in New Haven. I can't imagine what that kid's experiences are going to be like, having seen the short and having toys that look a little bit more like him and his family. That stuff matters, man."
Sanjay's Super Team is a film about creating a hybrid pop culture that reflects the background of its characters. But it's also about an American kid trying to relate to the immigrant parent he doesn't always understand through the things that he loves, the comic books and cartoons. And it's offered a new way for Patel to bridge the gap with his own dad as well.
"While we were making it, people were curious about what my dad thought of this short. It's just tough to explain to people that my dad had never seen a Pixar movie — never seen any of the films that I had worked on," Patel said. "It was pretty surreal to ask my dad to come up to the Bay Area, to sit down and watch this animated film about his and my history. And he was really proud. He's just this hardworking man that never stopped working. So we finally got him to stop and watch this film. And in many ways, it felt like we connected in a way we never could in real life. He finally saw that I'd animated this story about this son that figures out a way to connect with his father and to come back to what his father was trying to show him. It felt really great to be able to talk to him by making this film."