Growing up in San Bernardino in the 1980s a child of immigrants from Gujarat, India, Pixar Animation Studios artist Sanjay Patel straddled two worlds. Like many American kids of the era, he played with Transformers, watched Looney Toons cartoons and read Superman comics, but he also performed a daily Hindu ritual of meditation and prayer called a puja with his father.
The conflict and the connection Patel felt around that ritual, and around his Indian roots in general, inspired him to direct the short film “Sanjay’s Super Team,” which Pixar will release Nov. 25 ahead of its feature “The Good Dinosaur.” In June, “Sanjay’s Super Team” will premiere at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France, the festival announced Tuesday.
“My parents’ whole world revolved around their gods, the Hindu deities,” said Patel, 41, who joined Pixar in 1996 as an animator on “A Bug’s Life” and has worked on several films including “Toy Story 3,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “The Incredibles. “Our worlds were diametrically apart. I just wanted my name to be Travis, not Sanjay.”
When Patel was a child, his parents bought the Lido Motel, an old Route 66 stop-off where they still work and live, and which provides the setting for “Sanjay’s Super Team.”
The seven-minute short begins with young Sanjay watching cartoons and eating cereal in a bland, beige room as his father jingles a bell, beckoning him to join in meditation. Reluctant and bored by the ceremony, Sanjay begins daydreaming a kind of ancient, Hindu version of “The Avengers,” with the gods appearing like superheroes. As the daydream progresses, the color, light and animation of the film grows increasingly dazzling and cosmic, and Sanjay grows closer to understanding his father’s inner world.
Patel, who illustrates graphic novels of Indian culture in his spare time, first pitched the short to executives at Pixar in the summer of 2012.
In a screening room at Pixar this month, while wearing a Ramones T-shirt and a hoodie, Patel talked about the challenge of openly embracing his Indian background at work, even at a company with a significant number of Asian American employees (Peter Sohn, the director of “The Good Dinosaur,” is Korean American).
“It took me a long time to feel safe with my identity,” Patel said. “But [Pixar Chief Creative Officer] John Lasseter felt strongly about celebrating the personal side of the story.”
“Sanjay’s Super Team” is produced by Nicole Paradis Grindle, who served as associate producer on “Toy Story 3" and “Monsters University,” with music by Canadian composer Mychael Danna, who is known for his work on Indian-set films like “Life of Pi” and “Monsoon Wedding.”
Patel, who lives in Oakland with his fiancee and 2-year-old son, studied animation at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the California Institute of the Arts.
Though there are an increasing number of Indian Americans making their mark on pop culture, including Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari and Kal Penn, Patel said as a child he felt deeply the absence of anyone who looked like him in films and television.
“If I could, I would go back to the 1980s and give my younger self this short,” Patel said. “I want to normalize 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.”