When Sanjay Patel was a boy, he and his dad had a ritual every morning and evening. They sat side by side on the floor of the motel the family ran in San Bernardino. The father prayed to his gods in his daily meditation. The son often worshipped his own gods, cartoon superheroes, in front of his own shrine, the television.
Patel, a longtime animator at Pixar Studios who lives in Oakland, tapped into that childhood memory for his Oscar-nominated animated short film "Sanjay's Super Team." He's spent a lifetime trying to bridge the gap between his American attitude and his cultural roots and parents' Hindu traditions.
"I was always embarrassed and mortified by how different my family was," says Patel, 41, who has worked on animated hits such as "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 3," "Monsters, Inc." and "The Incredibles." "It took me a long time to feel comfortable in my skin."
Amid the discontent over the all-white roster of acting nominees for this year's Oscar, "Sanjay's Super Team," a seven-minute short that played in theaters before "The Good Dinosaur," comes as a relief for those who wish Hollywood reflected the diversity of America today. Critics have been raving about the raw emotional power of the autobiographical film as well as its animated flash. Patel's honesty about his childhood struggles gives this "Super Team" its special powers.
" 'Sanjay' will go down as one of the studio's best," wrote Wired magazine, hailing it as "Pixar's most achingly personal film."
Indeed, this movie marks a milestone for Pixar, which has never before had a movie directed by someone of Indian descent.
"Pixar certainly didn't greenlight the film out of some diversity agenda," says "Sanjay" producer Nicole Grindle, "but we think it is very important to seek out and tell new stories. This is wonderful story."
In the cheeky film, little Sanjay just can't wrap his mind around the point of meditation. In fact, he's bored stiff by sitting still, so he begins to dream of an epic superhero battle, only the warriors are not Batman or Wonder Woman but instead Vishnu, Hanuman and Durga, three formidable Hindu deities. These ancient gods became the ultimate "Super Team." It's a whimsical and sweet mashup of the sacred and the pixelated that eventually creates a bridge between father and son.
"I lost a lot of sleep over that. How can you sum up 3,000 years of philosophy in five minutes of animation?" Patel says. "I was scared to put that part of my culture and identity on display out there. The team at Pixar really helped with that, and now I couldn't be more proud."
Making the film has been a therapeutic experience for him, a way to heal the scars of the past, as well as honor his parents and their struggles to stay tethered to their culture. He now also confesses to stealing the gifts his father left on the shrine when no one was looking.
"In a way I think the gods got their revenge on me," says Patel, who has also published children's books mining the Hindu mythology, such as "The Little Book of Hindu Deities." "As a child I thought they meant nothing to me, and now they have become a huge part of my life and my work."
Patel remembers all too well how alienated he felt as a child growing up in the '80s, when the television he revered never showed him faces that looked like his own. Like many children of immigrants, he was walking a tightrope between trying to respect his heritage and trying desperately to fit in with his peers.
"I would have felt less afraid if I had been able to see characters who were South Asian out there," he explains. "It felt scary to be who I am, to be brown, and there was no way of hiding it."
That's part of the reason he wanted to make this film -- so that the next generation feels included in the mainstream of American culture.
"What I really wanted to do was normalize this experience," he says. "I wanted to create something my nieces and nephews could be proud of. The message is it's OK to be you. You don't have to be exotic; you can just be authentic to yourself."
But Patel is most proud of the reaction of one viewer in particular, his usually reserved father, who loved the movie so much he teared up.
As it happens, Patel's breakthrough comes at a time when Indian-Americans have at long last begun to emerge in pop culture, from Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari to "Silicon Valley" star Kumail Nanjiani.
"I'm so excited by what I see starting to happen out there," Patel says. "Part of what I wanted to do with this movie was show the decision-makers that there is a hunger for these stories."
Who: Sanjay Patel
Occupation: The filmmaker of Pixar's Oscar-nominated animated short film "Sanjay's Super Team"
Quote: "I was always embarrassed and mortified by how different my family was. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in my skin."