Tomorrow's debut of The Good Dinosaur is noteworthy beyond the fact that it's a new Pixar film and all new Pixar films make boatloads of money. Preceding the feature, there will be (in classic Pixar fashion) an animated short called Sanjay's Super Team. This seven-minute warm-up to the main attraction breaks lots of new ground for Pixar: It's the first to feature a non-white lead, a director of Indian descent, and to touch on religion—Hinduism, specifically.
Sanjay's Super Team depicts a young boy's quest to bridge the generational and cultural gaps between his American and Indian heritage. It begins with Sanjay watching cartoons while his father meditates and practices morning prayers behind him. As Sanjay grows more and more impatient by the ceremony, he starts daydreaming of Hindu deity superheroes. Throughout the course of the vibrant daydream, young Sanjay grows closer and closer to understanding his father, his religion, and his more traditional Indian culture.
Director Sanjay Patel based the short largely on his own experience learning to embrace his Indian heritage, especially without much Indian or Indian-American representation in American pop culture to draw from as a kid. "I think growing up for me, I was really embarrassed of my parent's culture. I was really embarrassed just being indian," Patel says. "If anything, what I really hope people can take away is that this culture, world, and character are interesting and cool and exciting."
The film's depiction of young Sanjay watching television, for instance, is a carbon copy of Patel's childhood—growing up, his TV sat next to his father's shrine. Although it took nearly 35 years for Patel to fully embrace his heritage, he hopes Sanjay's Super Team helps to validate Indian culture for younger viewers.
"It was always a schism. I had my American friends who had no clue about Indian culture, and I was much more into that camp," he says. "Once I discovered Asian art, that was the gateway for me to fall in love with the culture. It brought me back to understanding and appreciating my parents."
While Sanjay wasn't available for an extensive interview, we did speak with Leena Jayaswal, an associate professor of Film and Media Arts at American University, whose research specializes in the South Asian diaspora. Jayaswal's family immigrated to Ohio from India when she was a child, and she pursued photography as a means to bridge both cultures. She is currently working on a documentary about mixed-race families.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation with Jayaswal about representations of Indian culture in American media, and how films like Sanjay's Super Team are part of a larger shift away from popular Indian stereotypes.
How is media changing when it comes to portraying Indian culture?
There's so much [research] on Indian film, but I think television is sort of a newer model to think about. For so long, we were just the extras; we were the doctors on ER, we were the 7-11 workers, there was just not much to write about. I think we're in a heyday of television for Indian-American actors. We're starting to have some sort of breakthroughs.
We see, for example, Priyanka Chopra, who's in the new show Quantico. She's playing this tough, badass woman. We see people like Kal Penn. He's done some of the traditional, more typical roles like The Namesake, which was a beautiful, beautiful film, but then he was on How I Met Your Mother. He played just sort of an everyday American. It just so happened that he was Indian and brown.
How damaging can these stereotypes be?
When we see Indian Americans just being portrayed as doctors and engineers, the model minority, it's as if the rest of us don't exist. So people like me, who are filmmakers or photographers, we don't actually have media to look up, to say you're on the right path, you're doing the right thing, especially when we have a culture that tells us, "These are the good jobs you should have or to be a model citizen in the United States in particular."
I'm in a mixed-race family; my son is half Indian. When he sees these things—he's six years old—he doesn't really have a cultural context or know so much about India other than what I've been telling him. When he sees these things, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, those kinds of stereotypes, he's like, "That's what India is?" I think it can be detrimental to your own psyche when you're not seeing yourself represented.
Why is Sanjay's Super Team important?
I've been following this short for a couple months now. As soon as I saw it was being produced, I put it all over Facebook and sent it to my husband. I want [my son] to be able to say, "Oh, that's a little brown boy, and I'm half brown."
I know that it's tied to religion. I think people associate India just only with Hinduism and so this will maybe not help that stereotype. India is such a vast place with multiple religions including Muslims, Christians, Jains, [and] Sikhs. So in some ways I'm excited to see this, but I hope that it doesn't just fulfill the stereotype that Indians are Hindus.
Are there any particularly effective cartoons or computer animations that portray Indian-American culture right now?
There's a cartoon on Nickelodeon called Sanjay and Craig. I particularly really like this because they have a mixed-race family. The dad is Indian, Sanjay's dad, but his mom is white. It's gross-out humor; it's snakes throwing up and there's farting, but it's perfect for my six-year-old to watch. I'm like: "Look! He's half-Indian, just like you!" Maybe to him, just seeing himself is not that important, but for me to see him on Nickelodeon is really important.
One of the things that I think is really interesting is [Sanjay and Craig] doesn't hit on being Indian; it's just a matter of fact that dad is Indian, mom is white. I think comedy has a lot to do with that. There tends to be a lot of well-known Indian and Indian-American comics as of late, like with Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Hari Kondabolu, Hasan Minhaj.
[Minhaj] talks about growing up as an Indian American, so they use some of that in their comedy, but then they go on and talk about other things are not just related to Indian culture.
Do you wish you had a reference point at a younger age, the types of media your son is being exposed to now?
Absolutely. I think he's going to be more adjusted than I was. For any immigrant culture, it's so important to see yourself represented in books and movies and music and all of these things, even if it's just a snippet, because you're excited to see that you're not the only one and you're not alone. I think often growing up in a white community, that's tough, because you stick out like a sore thumb. The Asian and Asian-American cultures are really put on the back burner because they're considered the model minority.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.