Growing up surrounded by American culture, I always had some explaining to do on various questions — like why my family didn’t have a Christmas tree or why I wouldn’t eat the cafeteria hamburger — for reasons other than its slightly green tint. It seemed like I always had a lot of explaining to do when it came to my faith and the way I practiced it in public. Usually, whenever I could, I would try to ignore the question or change the subject. The 10-year-old me didn’t like explaining why I didn’t eat pork because it was just another reason on the list of things that separated me from them.
Watching Hollywood movies and mainstream television certainly did not help my cause. Every T.V. family celebrated Christmas and every December another Santa-themed movie would come out. I rarely saw a culture other than the typical Christian-American family played out on the screen, so growing up I identified with the westernized media a lot more than I want to admit. Not only because it was more prevalent, but also because it was easier. It was easier to pretend that I got gifts on Christmas too, and to hide that I was fasting during Ramadan, and not to admit that I woke up extra early on weekends to pray Fajr. I took the easy way out because I didn’t see any other type of norm.
With the introduction of Pixar’s new short story, Sanjay’s Super Team, hopefully that won’t be the case for new generations to come. Sanjay’s Super Team is not only Pixar’s newest short, but also a display of the way media is becoming more diversified in the face of a new generation. The animated short, set to premiere alongside The Good Dinosaur this November, is directed by Indian-American Sanjay Patel. Patel has explained in interviews that growing up with his devout Hindu father in his hometown of California, he did not see a lot of diversity in the media; South Asians were and still are often stereotypes and pigeonholed into the roles of convenience store owners, terrorists or nerdy background characters.
This is a monumental moment, not just for Sanjay, but also for Muslim-Americans.
Often the portrayal of South Asian characters, and characters of all races, ethnicities and religions other than the typical white American Christian lack a sense of depth or complexity. The characters are reduced to one-dimensional caricatures of stereotypes rather than being played out to represent the diverse and dynamic stories that many immigrant families have. Patel explains that the short itself is rich and vibrant not only visually but also thematically. The bright flashing colors that are typical of Indian culture are accompanied by a plethora of Hindu deities and Easter eggs for those familiar with the culture. According to Patel’s interview with Yahoo Movies, the short features a trio of Hindu deities-turned-superheroes, all picked with specific reasons in mind. The first deity is Vishnu, the blue God of preservation and balance. There’s also Durga, the mother goddess in her warrior manifestation. And finally, there is Hanuman the half-monkey, half-God.
Islam and Hinduism are very different religions, but both share a commonality in that they are two religions which are vastly underrepresented — in a positive light — by the media. With the portrayal of Hinduism in an educational and entertaining way, Patel is able to bring his faith to life for a broad audience. This means that young Hindu children or Indian-Americans can watch their own culture and beliefs play out on the big-screen for the first time. This is a monumental moment, not just for Sanjay, but also for Muslim-Americans.
This Pixar short represents a breaking down of barriers that is so necessary in American culture at the moment. With the (forthcoming) success of this short, there may come opportunities for other cultures and religions to be showcased in the same way. Pixar is taking a step forward in the game by letting an Indian-American family be portrayed — not through the eyes of an American looking at a foreigner — but through the eyes of an actual Indian American. Sanjay will have a chance to portray his experiences that won’t be whitewashed or uninformed.
Sanjay’s short represents a lot of things. Maybe most importantly, it is a sign of hope and change for a better future. Growing up, I was always embarrassed to be different, because it seemed like being different was somehow wrong. I was never able to watch movies or T.V. shows where I could identify with the female leads or their families. Maybe if I had seen a character that looked or talked like me, that represented me or my family, I would have been more open and accepting of myself.
It wouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to become comfortable in public with my beliefs and my faith because I would know that being different is not bad. I would have known that even though I didn’t practice my religion the same way my classmates did, it didn’t mean I was alone in how I lived or thought. Maybe one day my younger siblings won’t have to explain themselves to their classmates; maybe Islam will be just as represented and tolerated in mainstream media like Christianity. One can hope, Inshallah.
Written by Tahmina Hassan