To view images from Ramayana: Divine Loophole, click here for a slide show.
When Pixar animator Sanjay Patel was a child, his house was filled with images of mysterious deities—an eight-armed goddess, an elephant-headed god, and a divine couple called Rama and Sita. But it was only years later, after working on films like A Bug's Life and The Incredibles, that he became intrigued by the stories that had surrounded him as a little boy.
Patel's new book, Ramayana: Divine Loophole, is a picture-book version of an ancient Indian epic. The story has all the elements of a classic fairytale: a noble hero, a wicked stepmother, a beautiful princess in distress, and a host of friendly animals who save the day. But there's a twist. Rama is an avatar, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu. His purpose on earth is to slay a ten-headed demon who can't be destroyed by any of the gods—only by a god in the form of a man.
In Patel's illustrations, the characters of The Ramayana are doe-eyed and childlike. He creates his images on the computer, building them out of restrained, meticulous shapes and lines. But he holds nothing back when it comes to color. On one page, a demon shakes his trident against a background of hot pink; on the next, a friendly monkey flies through a lemon-yellow sky. The effect is as ancient as it is modern—an homage to a culture where colors are bold, stories are fantastical, and divine beings are constantly taking new forms.
When you sat down to illustrate The Ramayana, were you influenced by what you learned when you were storyboarding movies like A Bug's Life or Monsters, Inc.?
Of course. In particular, I was influenced by something that happened when I was working with Brad Bird on The Incredibles. I was storyboarding a scene where the family is finally reunited in the jungle after being separated. It's a really neat moment because throughout the movie, they never all get to use their superpowers together as a family, and it's something you're just dying to see. Brad Bird told me, "Play around and see what kinds of visual ideas you can come up with."
And so I did—it turned into this long, sprawling thing. So Brad looked at all the material I presented him, and he sat me down and said, "Sanjay, these are great ideas. But the problem is that if we do all of them, we slow down the movie to give the audience a big meal. What I'm trying to do is to make each one of these scenes feel like an appetizer. We need to make this feel light and leave the audience wanting more."
That's the way I approached telling this immense epic, probably one of the longest stories put to page. I took it as my job to create a small appetizer in each moment: he meets the monkey king, he confronts the demon. If you research it, there's so much depth in each of these moments. But in each case, I had to choose one thing I could give to the audience. The hardest part was paring it down without losing the essence.
And since this book isn't an animation, each image has to convey so much. For instance, there's the moment when Rama's stepmother sends him into exile. There's so much going on in that picture: the queen's finger pointing and the bracelets on her arms and the soldiers holding their spears and Rama bowing at her feet.
Those are all things I was definitely trying to convey. I start out with a title—the title, in that case, was "Exile." From there, I think of a storytelling image. I don't think of multiple images—I just think about one iconic image. When you think about Titanic, for instance, you think of the two of them on the bow of the ship. There's one image so potent that it burns into your memory.
Once I think of that image, I try to think the way we think when we're creating an animated sequence—we ask ourselves, "If the sound was turned off in that scene, would the audience still get what we're trying to convey?" Pictures are the fastest way to convey information. They're way faster than words. So if someone was just flipping through my book in a cursory way, I wanted them to be able to say, "Things are good now, things are not so good now, the colors are bright, the colors are stripped down and he's just using blues." And if they found that engaging, they might want read my little paragraph. I thought that in that way, maybe I could get the audience interested in this ancient story.
All of those bright colors you mentioned feel quintessentially Indian to me. Everything in India is bold. The sweet foods are really sweet and the spicy foods are really spicy and the facial expressions in the movies and dances are really expressive.
Maybe that's something that's been in my psyche. Maybe I was drawn to this idea of cartoon and caricature because it makes you reduce some things and exaggerate others. Just growing up and seeing that imagery, so full of color and spectacle, I must have absorbed it into my aesthetic. I really did want the color in this book to be as punchy as possible. The story is such a grand, over-the-top epic—I think even Tolkien was a fan of these mythologies and used them as inspiration for Lord of the Rings.
Did you look at older Indian art when you were deciding how to represent characters like Rama and Sita?
Oh, yeah! I hunted high and low for miniatures, paintings, sculptures—I really wanted to get to the heart of the way Indians would tell the story. I wanted to honor what was done centuries ago. People have been doing this forever. It's so legit!
I realized after doing some research that centuries and centuries ago, The Ramayana wasn't actually illustrated. It was sung and performed, and the actors would bring it to life with masks and costumes. Then later, there were these amazing sculptures. So I was looking at that for sure. But artists only really depicted certain episodes in the Ramayana. I wanted to show all those other scenes, like the part where they meet Jambavan the bear! If I were a kid, I'd want to see cool icons and badass graphics.