Our heritage sometimes defines us.
As someone who loves genealogy, I’m always eager to share that I come from people who were brave enough to come to a new country on the Mayflower.
I come from a family that sold everything and walked across the country to pursue their religious freedom.
I’m related to Rebecca Nurse, of the infamous Salem Witch Hunt, General Phillip Schuyler, and Alexander Hamilton.
My family includes a story about Butch Cassidy stealing my great grandfather’s horse and leaving silver in the feeding bucket.
On the other side of my line, I’m related to the outlaw-Pretty Boy Floyd.
In more recent family, my mom’s cousin played NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Green Bay Packers.
It’s a pedigree that makes me feel….well, ordinary.
But what if your heritage was something you wanted to hide from the everyday?
Sitting in the private theater at Pixar Animation Studios was the first time this thought occurred to me. Sanjay Patel was the speaker. A 20-year Pixar veteran, who has worked as an animator on films such as “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 3”, “Monsters, Inc.” and “The Incredibles” stood in front of me, as a producer, sharing his movie, “Sanjay’s Super Team” when the thought about heritage entered my mind.
Sanjay Patel spent his childhood in California. He watched cartoons you probably grew up on– Transformers, Looney Tunes and he read comic books about superheroes. As a child of Indian immigrants, he moved to the US at the age of five. He also performed a daily Hindu ritual of meditation and prayer called a puja with his father.
This is where the short-film Sunjay’s Super Team, which will be released ahead of the Disney-Pixar feature film, The Good Dinosaur, in theaters November 25th, begins. A small boy watching cartoons while his father meditates and prays.
He grew up, moved out of his parents’ home, and wrote a book called “Little India.” The book, described by Patel as “a contemporary way to talk about faith,” is filled with a gorgeous illustration of Hindu deities, a line or two of description, stories of mythology, and was self-published. The book was a hit and picked up for mainstream distribution by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing.
His research continued, “unlocking the importance of my culture.” For ten years, he spent “four hours each night reading and learning India myths.” It consumed him. He was “torn between my day job at Pixar and my night job of myths.”
Then, John Lasseter, Pixar Chief Creative Officer, approached Patel and wanted him to share his personal story. Patel approached his dad and told him, “The studio wants me to tell my story, but I’m scared. ”
His father told him, “Not doing what you are being asked to do, would be bad Karma. It is your sacred duty. You must try–even if they don’t like it.”
That’s some incredible advice, don’t you think?
Sanjay Patel did it.
It took him 30 years to go to India, and it was “like the mother-ship with two-billion people like me.” The thing he remembers is, “Ajanta and Ellora. Caves in Maharashtra India dating back to 480 BC. It was a place so sacred you must take your shoes off before going in the caves. “It was someone’s job to watch the shoes. I observed the man, very much like me, who was so bored and he was here, in this amazing place.”
It was the plot for his first pitch–a boy working at Temple as a shoe guard who passes the time reading western superhero comics. “I grew up worshipping the gods on TV and my dad, his gods in his shrine.”
John Lasseter told him, “Tell that truth.”
At first, Sanjay’s Super Team had a super cheesy opening–similar to those cheesy cartoons of his youth.
John Lasseter watched it and gave his honest opinion, “I disagree with the characterization. If you want to reach today’s child, you need to modernize it. When the TV turns off, you need to feel the loss.”
It was then that all that research, those four hours every night, the 30 years it took him to go to India, the 35 years it took him to read the stories from his parents’ religion-it all helped him connect and he said, “It’s my parent’s culture; I’m not going to disrespect that.”
Sanjay’s Super Team was on its way, and now it became about how to animate the deity. He explained to his animation team that he wanted movement like in the film Samsara. He told his Supervising Animator that when they “pop up, I want to see their ghost–deities move faster than time.
Patel carefully chose his deities:
Vishnu, who is always blue and represents preservation and balance.
Durga–Feminine worship, a warrior goddess, who is always red
Hanuman–1/2 animal, 1/2 human..he is the monkey king
The only known male kathakali dancer in America, K.P. Kunhiraman, and his wife, Katherine Kunhiraman, came in and helped choreograph the deities with animators learning the dance. “Every gesture means something, so it is essential to know where the knee goes and where the wrist breaks,” revealed Patel.
There was chaos and one month left of production, and John Lasseter tells Patel that he is “lost.” There is so much going on.
Justin Pearson comes in for Sound/Score, and Patel tells him, “My dad has two instruments: a bell and his voice. They are the truth of my story.”
It all came together, and the question on everyone’s mind was, ‘What does your dad think? We’ve turned him into a Pixar character!” Patel confesses that the last movie his father saw in the theater was “Sound of Music.” The thought of that made Sanjay question how his father would respond to animation.
Sanjay brings his father to Pixar to see the film, Sanjay’s Super Team. It was here, and my heart swelled in my chest,, and tears streamed down my face. We watched the clip of Sanjay’s father seeing his son’s movie for the first time.
The elder Patel watches and answers, “It’s good. They come together and compromise at the same time. My hope is coming true. Let me hug you. You give me a lot of joy. It is very touching.”
But it’s Sanjay Patel who steals the show as he goes back to that kid in San Bernadino he once was and, very softly says,
“My dad is very proud of me. for 30 years I was ashamed–ashamed to be their son. I was ashamed of their rituals, their cultures. I was the one brown kid….the one brown kid… If you are the only one, you feel like a freak. I didn’t want to do it.”
On November 25, The Good Dinosaur will be in theaters everywhere. Go see why Sanjay Patel is “so proud Pixar took a chance with the brown kid with the funny name” and how every story. Every word. Unlocks a heritage.