Playing Indian American Founder of Male-Stripping Empire Took Physical, Emotional Toll, Says Kumail Nanjiani
- The Pakistani American actor opened up to Vanity Fair after Disney+ released a first look of “Welcome to Chippendales” which tells the unlikely story of the rise and fall of Somen Banjerjee.
Disney+ last week released the first look of Kumail Nanjiani’s “Welcome to Chippendales,” the upcoming true crime drama series which tells the story of Indian American Somen “Steve” Banerjee, who became the unlikely founder of Chippendales, the male-stripping empire. The series details the insane, darkly comedic and crime-ridden story behind the unique male revue that became a cultural phenomenon.
Often described as “the most infamous Bengali immigrant to have landed on American shores,” Banerjee founded the male striptease performance clubs with muscled, oil-slicked male dancers, wearing collars, cuffs, black Spandex pants, and little else. He named them Chippendales, after the classic Chippendales-style furniture that adorned the club where the guys first performed.
The success of the Los Angeles club spawned a New York club and other permanent locations, including their flagship location inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Touring troupes were established and soon the Chippendales were traveling the world, entertaining women across the globe. However, he committed suicide in 1994 in a jail cell after a life of incredible success and precipitous fall.
There have been talks of actors like Dev Patel and Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan doing separate films based on earlier scripts based on Banjerjee’s rise and fall. But it was only actor Naveen Andrews who essayed the Indian American entrepreneur in the 2000 TV movie “The Chippendales Murder.”
Director Robert Siegel told Vanity Fair that the first time the Pakistani American actor was asked to play Banerjee, he was skeptical. “He didn’t feel ready to embody somebody so different from him, to play a dramatic role of such epic scope, to throw out every performance crutch he’d adopted across more than a decade of appearing on screen.” Adding that “The Big Sick” actor was always his first choice,” Siegel told the magazine that he thought Nanjiani “was a little reluctant, or maybe nervous, about playing a bad guy.”
The cast includes Murray Bartlett, Juliette Lewis, Annaleigh Ashford, Quentin Plair, and Robin de Jesús.
As soon as Nanjiani decided to play the part, he would go for “long walks,” either by himself or with his wife, Emily, he told Vanity Fair. He wrote “pages and pages of nonsense” about Chatterjee. “He searched for tiny details, anything to unlock the most mysterious, complicated character of his career,” he told the magazine.
According to him, Chatterjee “had so many moments where he could have taken the right road and he didn’t. There are five different forks and each time, each crossroad, he took the exact wrong path.”
He told the magazine that the role is unlike anything he’s done before. “[Banerjee] is a lot stiffer than I am,” he said. “He’s disconnected from his body, coiled really tight.” That’s why immersing as Banjerjee did take an emotional and physical toll on him. “I started having this back pain a few months into the shoot, this gnarly knot,” he told Vanity Fair. “It got worse and worse and the pain would go from there all the way up to my ear.”
Mentally, the actor was affected by “living inside such psychologically brutal material.” He continued: “The body doesn’t know the difference between you doing a sad scene and you being really sad in real life,” he said. “I’d never done this kind of work.”
Reviewing the first look, Vanity Fair notes that as Banjerjee, Nanjiani “redefines himself as a performer. Initially, he holds the screen with an off-kilter stillness, a premonition of bad things to come while maintaining a glint of innocence in Somen’s wide eyes.”
Siegel told the magazine that while the show is “really shiny and fun on the surface, those quiet hints of disaster, of the dark and painful elements skirting the story’s edges, get louder episode by episode.”