By Ahmed Sharma, Staff Writer
When we hear about success stories, it’s usually the same cliche of someone having a dream and then working hard to achieve it. However, revisionist historians and writers like myself, are more interested in the bigger picture and what that hard work looked like. For Hulu’s Welcome to Chippendales starring Kumail Nanjiani, it is the dramatized portrait of a man (based on a true story) who looked to climb the ladder of success through the lens of a South Asian immigrant, and in Shakespearean fashion, bit off more than he could chew.
Nanjiani (The Big Sick, Marvel’s Eternals, and Silicon Valley) plays Indian American immigrant Somen “Steve” Bannerjee, turned founder of Chippendales, which the show describes as a “strip club for women.” Initially, he is portrayed as a “down on his luck” guy, who just really wants to make a name for himself. Even the show’s description describes him as someone who “wants to be the next Hugh Hefner.”
It’s not this reviewer’s intention to pass judgment on anyone for wanting to pursue their dreams. It is, however, my intention to shine a light on the dreams exposed by societal pressures by writing them on a metaphorical chalkboard with the shiniest chalk to ensure its illumination is as transparent as possible. In other words, the immigrant experience, perhaps the overall American experience, to achieve a goal or standard and live up to is impossible, even by our own standards. Yet, Banarjee’s character hoped to do just that, starting with his own name by shedding his identity as Somen Banarjee because some shoplifters pushed him around, as specified in the first minute or two of the debut episode. From there, Banarjee is on a quest to reidentify, reimagine, and reconstruct himself as the next successful businessman in America. Through this, he quits the job he had despite the promise of lucrative promotion. He admits to his (what will later be his) former boss that he sacrificed so much; not eating out, not going out, not really having any fun just saving as much as he could to make this dream come true of opening a casino. When he does it, he tries to put the lessons he learned from other so-called business experts he read about and put them into action. Starting with the name of the business: Destiny II, so it appears as though it’s a second location, thus making him look more successful than he already appears to be.
Months go by until he decides to take partnership with a shady club promoter, who later is revealed to have stretched the truth. In the subsequent episodes, Nanjiani’s character is increasingly ruthless and clever with the moves he makes. Certainly a drastic change from the initial, apprehensive Somen Banarjee we came to sympathize. Can he really be blamed for his actions? This is how the game works though, which kind, you might ask, but do you really have to? It’s the game of takeover. The chess match of life, where we strive to be the greatest there can be, but even in chess there’s a reason why to win, you have to knock over a few pieces before you can call checkmate.
The reality of it all is Banarjee’s character, while humanized through Nanjiani’s portrayal, is nonetheless a demonstration of someone who flew too close to the sun and rather than risk a hard fall, took his own life in 1994 while behind bars.
This is not to say we shouldn’t strive for success, but why should the pavement be bloodied along the way? Perhaps even telling Banarjee’s story took some elbow rubbing and tears shed before it could finally get in front of viewers. I say this because Nanjiani’s typecast as the comic relief in previous films would not give some the impression that he could play a ruthless businessman, who just so happened to be South Asian American. Or arguably the bigger picture is that there once existed a South Asian American businessman who was credited with helping establish one of the biggest names in sexual entertainment.
There’s so much to unpack in those two paradoxical questions. On the one hand, the show is an impressive, eye-grabbing display of the haunting real-life villains we’ve come to humanize like Pablo Escobar in the Netflix series, Narcos. On the other, it’s a frightening look at history, where the dream scope to make money and be revered for doing so becomes smaller. This is the tragic reality that even befalls Banarjee’s adult son, who Vice looked to paint as someone who will go through any means just to make money and fulfill what his father could not. Even if that means convincing yourself that it’s possible though the odds are against you.
We can change our names, we can trust those who promise us the world until they betray us, but in the end, what good is it if it means we lose ourselves in the process, not realizing we’ve let them down because of our consequential actions? I probably sound like I’m rambling, but these thoughts come to mind when I watch Welcome to Chippendales. It’s a wonderfully entertaining show, despite what some critics might say. Simultaneously, it’s so haunting that it really leaves an imprint on the brain and when you learn the true nature of what happened, and inadvertently spoil the entire series, it’s almost like a guilty pleasure. We’re rooting for the hero of a story, knowing he’s actually a villain and we’re not supposed to like him. We do though because instead of it being a chalkboard with illuminating writing, it’s a giant mirror staring back at ourselves wondering if we’d do the same if we were Banarjee (as Nanjiani) and in his position.
All I can say is regardless of the outcome, we should all be strapped in for an exciting ride that will possibly leave us queasy afterward. In just a few episodes Hulu has premiered, there have been so many twists and turns but regardless, we cannot help but tune in to see how it’ll all unfold and ignore reality or the haunting reflection it paints of our society. Damn you, TV magic.
“Welcome to Chippendales” now streaming on Hulu, with new episodes every Wednesday.
AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Please fill out this 2-minute survey which we will use to improve our content. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.