In a world of angry Hanuman images, Sanjay Patel draws a different story.
He too works with Hindu gods and goddesses—Saraswati, Kali, Krishna. But in his world they look like cute kids, they sing and dance and play and giggle. They learn the real meaning of Diwali and that feisty little girls like Kali can protect their brothers on Rakhi. There are volcanoes that spew mangoes and treats galore. Patel’s series of 20 episodes aimed at preschoolers premiered last month on his YouTube channel GheeHappyStudio.
It all sounds utterly butterly ghee happy. That very phrase harkens back to his own childhood, growing up in California, US. “My dad would do a puja and aarti,” he remembers over a video call from his home in California. “He would offer ghee to the gods.” And as we all know, a little bit of ghee can make everyone very happy. But he also liked the idea of ghee as boiling something down to its core. “Stripping something down to its essential nature is what I felt like I was doing with my art,” he says. “And sharing it in a way that felt joyful and playful.”
But it wasn’t always joyful and playful for him. Patel, who is now in his late 40s, grew up as a lonely kid helping his father manage a rather seedy motel off Route 66 highway in California. His father struggled to keep it afloat, even running a gas station to pay the mortgage.
“None of my friends would want to come over because it was really strange to tell people that my parents were a) Indian and b) were living in a motel, and c) do you want to play with drug addicts and prostitutes?”
So his friends lived inside the television and comic books—G.I. Joe, X-Men and ninjas. He himself wanted to be a ninja. And he spent his time doodling, sketching, drawing, learning to keep himself company.
To make things even more fraught, his mother struggled with schizophrenia. “Many times she would destroy the things I would make. And I would be devastated. But she didn’t understand what I was doing.”
Sanjay Patel used his art to escape from life at the motel, went to art school and joined the American animation studio Pixar and worked on the animation and storyboarding of films like Monsters, Inc. (2001), Ratatouille (2007), Cars (2006) and Toy Story 2 (1999). But eventually he also drew his way back home. In 2015, when Pixar released The Good Dinosaur, it released a short alongside—Sanjay’s Super Team (written and directed by Patel) about a little boy watching superheroes on TV while his father is ringing a little puja bell and worshipping his gods.
He says he first had the idea when he was visiting the caves of Ajanta and Ellora in Maharashtra. “I took a photograph of someone sitting in front of a temple watching people’s shoes. The person was so bored. He was looking away from the incredible beauty of the caves and just staring at the shoes.” When he told the story to John Lasseter, then chief creative officer at Pixar, Lasseter asked him if he ever had a job like that. “I told him the truth. I told him about how my dad wanted me to do puja and I would ignore the shrine with all its gods.” Lasseter said, “That feels true, Sanjay. Tell that story. People will embrace it.”
He did and Sanjay’s Super Team won an Oscar nomination for best animated short film. “I think my father was moved. We don’t really have physical expressions of love in our family. I was just grateful that I got to write this love letter through my art to my father before he vanishes.”
Yet despite the latitude and security Pixar offered him, Patel left the company to pursue his own ghee happy dreams. At that time he was working on Incredibles 2. He had spent 20 years at the company. “I was getting very clear signals from my body that I couldn’t keep doing the things I did as a young man. I had a corneal transplant in my left eye. For one year I couldn’t draw. But I had a lot of time to think.”
Many had thought after Sanjay’s Super Team, the next natural step would be the feature film. “I was scared,” he admits. “I was raised in a world that didn’t see any depictions of me. I was the first South Asian that got to make something at a very successful business called Pixar. It was very scary to be the first. I felt very, very afraid.”
While the world looked at him as the desi success story in the world of animation, Patel didn’t feel like a superhero inside. “Companies like Pixar are in the business of entertainment, pure and simple. If there’s representation, that’s great. But it’s only so long as the representation drives business. I felt safer doing it at home alone. Or on television. It was a safer place to mess up and to grow.”
By then he was married. He had kids of his own. He had already done an illustrated version of the Ramayan in 2010 and picture books like Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth (2012), and Ganesha’s Great Race this year. The Ghee Happy series and the books became his way to “re-share Indic traditions, Indic stories, Indic philosophies” full-time, embracing all the things he had once rejected.
But culture crossing isn’t always happy. In polarised times where everyone is itching to take offence, there was always the danger that someone might be upset if he became too playful with sacred traditions. Patel remembers when he was working with Netflix, trying to develop a preschool show based on his Little Book Of Hindu Deities (2006), the producers got nervous with the idea of Krishna as makhanchor (butter thief). “The executives were like stealing is bad, we can’t reinforce the idea of stealing to children,” he chuckles. Luckily, they had brought mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik on board and he helped them understand why stealing that piece of butter is what makes Krishna so loveable.
But Ghee Happy ran into some problems from unexpected quarters as well. Some of his left liberal artist friends were worried that he was inadvertently feeding into the Hindutva project as well, basically helping make Hindutva cute. In their eyes Sanjay Patel had become part of what they saw as “the problem” by inadvertently providing fodder for the right wing, especially NRIs (non-resident Indians).
It’s a dilemma that many artists face. Patel read up on Ambedkar and Dalit icons. He had conversations about the anxieties of minorities. But he also felt uncomfortable co-opting them into his work because they were not really part of his growing up in that puja room in that motel in California. He couldn’t shoehorn them into his childhood stories. On the other hand, it had been a long road back for him to his own cultural heritage and he couldn’t abandon that either.
“Politicians have always taken these symbols and used them for their own purposes. And I think that’s because we artists have abandoned them. I felt we needed to re-take them and remind people that they can be used to make people happy and not angry.” He says all he can do is “make sure the stories, the characters and philosophies came first, rather than the religion.”
He’s not sure it always works, but he keeps trying. And when I talked to him as he sat in his living room in California with his son’s drawings of orcas and trains behind him, he looked at peace.
His father, now in his 80s, still runs the old motel. His mother died while he was making his series, but he feels blessed that he was right there with her and his aunts at the end. The second episode of his Ghee Happy series, about the meaning of Diwali, is dedicated to her. “At the end she was bedridden but her sisters were there with her and they would giggle over old Bollywood films. It couldn’t have been a better death.” And now his own son sews little stuffed toys based on the Ghee Happy characters like a little Krishna, and a little Saraswati and a guru who hides things in his beard. That’s a long way to come for the boy who grew up with Looney Tunes and G.I. Joe, ignoring the fabulous stories of monkey gods and blue-skinned heroes at home.
Unlike his father, Patel isn’t trying to make his sons do puja and aarti. It’s just storytelling but in the end that too is its own ritual.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr.