Cultural Awareness Starts With Movies Like ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’
If you went to see Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur in theaters, chances are that you left the theater talking about Sanjay’s Super Team, the mini film that played just before the main feature.
The seven-minute-long short tells the story of Sanjay, a young boy torn between his love for Western Saturday morning superhero cartoons and his father’s insistence that he spend more time paying respect to Hindu deities.
Director Sanjay Patel has spoken candidly about how the conflict between animated Sanjay and his father is based on the apathy towards his real life father’s daily worship rituals he felt as a child.
“I had this fear of approaching him with questions about why we were doing what we were doing,” Patel told The Verge. “He didn’t talk about it, and I didn’t ask about it. It was just something we both seemed to endure.”
In the short, Sanjay plunges into a vivid fantasy that blends his favorite superheroes with manifestations of three Hindu gods after accidentally interrupting his father’s prayers while reaching for an action figure.
Trapped in a temple being ravaged by a chaotic demon made of smoke, Sanjay teams up with Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman to bring back balance before his father realizes what he’s done.
The film is luminous, fluid, and a work of pure art to watch, but the real beauty is in the fact that it’s exactly the kind of media that can help kids build a deeper understanding of people who aren’t necessarily exactly like them.
Sanjay’s Super Team is Pixar’s first production to feature a non-white main character and a plot borne out of imagery and themes deeply rooted in non-Western ideology. Patel has said he wanted to create a film that not only reflected his experience growing up with Hindu parents, but also spoke to the wider population of children born to immigrants.
Sanjay‘s Super Team accomplishes both of those things masterfully, but it also highlights the importance of exposing young audiences to cultures dissimilar to their own. The theater that I saw the short in was packed with an audience of predominantly white families whom I imagine had come to see a movie about a talking dinosaur with a feral pet human.
You could hear and see the amazement that swept through the crowd as the sound of chiming ghanta bells filled the room and Durga conjured a spectral tiger on the screen.
Even if the kids (or their parents, for that matter) didn’t 100% know who these Gods were or which belief system they were from, you could tell that there would be quite a bit of post-movie Googling about what everyone had just seen.
In interviews, Patel has explained that, like his series of children’s books, he created Sanjay’s Super Team to give his nieces and nephews the chance to see kids who looked like them in the types of stories that all children love.
As necessary as it is that children of color be able to relate to superheroes, it’s also important that white audiences learn that media prominently featuring black and brown faces aren’t just novelties.
For an older, smaller-minded generation of comics readers, the new Thor, Captain America, and Ms. Marvel are only attempts at updating the characters to reflect a more politically correct time. In reality, though, those comics and Sanjay’s Super Team are much more than that.
In addition to being an Avenger and an Inhuman, Kamala Khan is the child of Muslim, Pakistani immigrants. In her books, each of those identities blend together to create a character not often seen in mainstream comics.
Kamala, as a result, is a complex, three-dimensional character whose story arcs have a crossover appeal. You don’t have to be Muslim or Pakistani to identify with Kamala, but it doesn’t hurt if you are.
The same is true of Sanjay and his team of Hindu superheroes. While the film’s details may be more familiar if you’re Hindu, you don’t have to be in order to appreciate how artful and reverent they are.
When we push for more diversity in predominantly white creative industries, we’re asking for a number of things. We’re asking for more minority representation within the industry itself, but we’re also asking to see the lives of people of color explored and celebrated.
Originally published at fusion.net.