Why Kumail Nanjiani's Welcome To Chippendales Homework Involved Watching A Bunch Of Classic Hollywood Movies [Exclusive]

In the upcoming miniseries "Welcome to Chippendales," actor Kumail Nanjiani plays Somen "Steve" Banerjee, who founded the famous erotic all-male revue show in 1979. The story goes that Banerjee bought a disused nightclub and made it lucrative by featuring stripping and, as was novel at the time, mud wrestling. It was the all-male Chippendales revue, though, that really put him on the map, and Chippendales became a household name. To this day, one can still see Chippendales shows in Las Vegas. Banerjee's story was also rife with criminality, and he was eventually arrested for attempted arson, and for hiring assassins to murder rivals. All the details will presumably be covered in the miniseries, set to air on Hulu between November 22, 2022 and January 3, 2023. 

Recently, /Film's own Jacob Hall interviewed Nanjiani about playing Banerjee. The actor talked about how his character, born in Bombay came to idolize and internalize the superficial trappings of American culture. Hall mentions that Banerjee, as he is depicted on screen, takes pride in his consumption of Coca-Cola. He also attempts to impress his family by presenting them with Velveeta cheese, seeing the product as a sign of status. Nanjiani said that, in order to get into his part, had to immerse himself in American pop culture of the 1970s and understand where an Indian immigrant might see a version of the American Dream manifesting itself.

The America that never existed

"The American Dream" is an ill-defined concept, usually relating very broadly to financial success. America is, as the cliché goes, the land of opportunity. This means, to some, that one can start with very little money, apply themselves to a business or a trade, and eventually accumulate enough wealth to be comfortable or even opulent. As Nanjiani saw it, Banerjee was one of those people who took all their signs of American success directly from a Playboy magazine. As Nanjiani said: 

"I think he has this sort of idolization of America and the West. That's really part of his personality, and I think it's been a part of his personality since before we watch him on the show. I think that's why he looks up to Hugh Hefner. To him, I think Hugh Hefner represents America, as he sees America, glamorous and money and suits, fancy suits, beautiful women and nice cars and expensive watches. I think that's the America he sees."

Of course, the America that many entrepreneurs see is a fantasy, as Nanjiani was quick to point out. A large part of the American Dream appears to be a level of success that elevates the wealthy above conventional morality. The rules, the fantasy goes, should apply differently to those with wealth. The clash between "rich morality" and ordinary morality seems to be what caused Banerjee's downfall. According to Nanjiani:

"I think he has sort of weird love affair with a version of America that he has in his head that never existed, and I think trying to reconcile his fantasy with the reality sort of leads to his ruin."

The Towering Inferno

As cultural research, Nanjiani took on a project that any one of us would do well to repeat. He wanted to see what the broad filmgoing American public was consuming during the years that "Welcome to Chippendales" takes place. The actor found himself gaining new insight into the map of 1970s pop culture by immersing himself in the era's blockbusters, year by year. Some of which, he admits, he hadn't seen before. Nanjiani was born in 1978, so his childhood didn't include, for instance, "The Towering Inferno." As he said: 

"I sort of did a thing where I went back and watched the number one movie of the year from every year since [Steve] was in America until the show starts, because I imagined that he would think these things were glamorous and ended up watching a lot of great movies. I watched 'The Towering Inferno,' which I've never seen before. It's fantastic. I can't believe back then you would just have movie stars like Paul Newman actually surrounded by real fire. That movie is amazing because you can see he's like sweating because there's a fire right there, and you can see he is a little scared of it." 

The 10 things in Steve Banerjee's room

John Guillerman's "The Towering Inferno" was released in 1974 and starred a huge roster of celebrities getting trapped in a high-rise that was on fire. It was one of the biggest hits of the decade, having made $200 million on a budget of $14 million. One might look back to the 1970s as the golden age of the all-star disaster movie, and find films like "Airport" and "The Poseidon Adventure" awaiting. As impressed as Nanjiani was with Guillerman's film, he thought long and hard about how Banerjee would have reacted to the same. The actor understands that something profound happened for his character with "Towering," though, and invented an imaginary collection in Banerjee's room. Nanjiani said: 

"I had a list of 10 items that I imagine are in his room, and I think one of them was the ticket stub to 'The Towering Inferno.' To him, that represents America, this big, glorious spectacle. And I actually watched the premier of that movie. Stars driving up and all that, and I think to him, that really represents the America he wants to be a part of."

Nanjiani doesn't say what the other nine objects were, but he clearly gave a lot of thought into thinking like his character. Viewing the world through a pop culture lens has become a default way of thinking in modern discourse, and Nanjiani was wise to apply that ethos to his performance.