‘America has backtracked on racism – at least Britain has an Indian leader’

Kumail Nanjiani in new Disney Plus drama about the unexpected founder of the world's largest male striptease empire

Kumail Nanjiani in new Disney Plus drama about the unexpected founder of the world’s largest male striptease empire

“I have to bet myself,” says Kumail Nanjiani as he reflects on the drastic new direction he’s taken for his latest drama. “It was a strange, dark story and these things would never get in my way. I wanted to see if I could do something like that. But it was scary not being able to go back to my comedy.”

After a career of mostly creating laughter, 44-year-old Hollywood star Nanjiani, a former stand-up comedian, broke down badly to play Somen “Steve” Banerjee, the Indian businessman who founded the Chippendales male striptease group in Los Angeles.

Welcome to Chippendales is an eight-part drama that tells the story of Banerjee’s rise and fall, which ends with Banerjee hanging himself while awaiting sentence for arson, blackmail and murder for hire. Banerjee is an untouchable figure amongst the trendy crowd of 1970s Los Angeles: somewhat squishy on the sides, dressed in naff suits, emotionally unavailable and eventually consumed by greed.

“[His story] Nanjiani says he’s been taken to the logical end of the American dream. “If you look at people who are known to be rich and successful, they always end up in a dark place. You can never have enough. The definition of success in America is to be more successful than yesterday, which is not sustainable. At some point, you have to decide to be happy where you are. We really don’t have a narrative for people who say, ‘You know, that’s enough for me. Banerjee calls him a “toddler,” where complex emotions express themselves only as anger.

While Chippendales is Nanjiani’s most striking departure, he has made a habit of gently reinventing himself, both in his roles and physically. In 2019, he “broke the internet” in online words when he uploaded selfies to Instagram showing the ripped, muscular physique he developed for his role in Marvel’s Eternals in 2021, which received mixed reviews. Nanjiani’s conversion was so severe that he was accused of using steroids: others noted that an accusation was rarely leveled against white players who hit the bench press.

Sitting on a sofa in the Langham hotel, she’s regained her form, Hollywood sleeves stretched over the sleeves of a tight white T-shirt, and it’s just as clear that she’s tired of talking about her body.

“I’ll do whatever it takes,” he says as politely as he can, about gaining and losing weight. “It’s just part of the preparation. I think we’re sick of talking about people’s looks. At some point, it will be weird to talk about anyone’s experience in any qualitative way. Anyway. I don’t really have wild insight. I do the work and then I’ll weather the storm. and sometimes you get hung up on it.I have a very organized life that allows me to feel free.

Nanjiani grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, as the eldest of two sons of accountant Aijaz and dentist Shakeela. “My dad was emotionally expressive, so I always had a male role model who cried and expressed his love,” she says. “But I’d be embarrassed. I didn’t like seeing my dad like that, so I couldn’t express myself for most of my life. Until a few years ago, when I started taking acting classes, I realized that there were all these things inside of me that I was pushing aside. Therapy helps too. Comedy helps a lot. intellectual but acting is very emotional.You can be a successful comedian all your life without ever having access to it. [those emotions]”

Kumail Nanjiani,

Kumail Nanjiani frustrated with endless talk about ‘body transformation’ for Eternals – Sophie Mutevelian

Nanjiani says she “hated” school, but she still studied hard. “I don’t remember hating anything as much as I hated school back then,” she says. “But I also spent a lot of time studying. It’s weird to be so good at what you hate. It gave me a really good work ethic. It’s not nice. But I realized a long time ago that I would never be cool, and that’s okay. I have a wonderful wife! But even before everyone called myself a nerd, I was a real nerd.

He moved to Iowa for college, where he studied computer science and philosophy and replaced the Shiite Islam with which he grew up with atheism. After graduating, he worked odd jobs, including IT, while establishing himself in the stand-up circuit. His show revealed a sharp, sensitive comedian with Pakistani Muslim heritage: a welcome rarity in the wake of 9/11. TV episodes followed, and Nanjiani typically starred as nerdy minor characters. In 2014, he took on the role of Dinesh, the lead character in the five-year tech world satire Silicon Valley. What its thickness is for British politics, so is Silicon Valley for Palo Alto: a satire that becomes more forward-thinking with each new announcement about a metaverse or cryptocurrency.

“We used to go and meet them [tech bosses]Nanjiani laughs. “I won’t name them, but if you can think of a name, I’ve met them. They would all say ‘your show is great, other people who are crazy’. We rode this wave of admiration and disappointment with these figures who went from nobody to celebrities to humiliation.

Then came the captivating romantic comedy The Big Sick in 2017, which Nanjiani wrote based on real-life courtships with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. Kumail’s character, a business comedian named Kumail, briefs a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) before he gets infected and falls into a medical coma. The film grossed more than $56 million worldwide and earned Nanjiani and Gordon Oscar nominations. He remains justifiably proud of it. There’s a pattern in some of his work, which I think is doing something that’s going to be hugely acclaimed – education, stand up, podcasts, TV work, getting in shape – he just wants to get on with it.

“I think that’s a fair point,” he says. “But that’s not my reaction to The Big Sick. “I am very proud of that. But I hope we never do anything so personal.” There aren’t many brown women, I just thought about how they worked them out in the story and I regret it.

Along with many roadshows like this one, Nanjiani spent a few months in the UK a few years before filming Eternals. The experience of being South Asian here is very different, she says.

“Asian culture is more of a mainstream culture,” he says. “You’re going to be watching a TV show where there may be more than one brown person, and they don’t necessarily have to be related. A long time ago there was The Kumars at number 42. [more than 20 years ago, in fact] – we still don’t have it in the states. [The UK] feels less reserved. We were walking the other day and we saw a brown construction worker and Emily said, ‘I’ve never seen this before. I feel like I’ve been seen a lot more than I was there. It is more represented.”

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick movie inspired by Nanjiani's relationship - Sarah Shatz

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick, a movie inspired by Nanjiani’s relationship – Sarah Shatz

“It’s great to have [an Indian leader],” he says. “We’ll probably never have that in America. We’ve never even had a woman.” In some ways, he says, America is holding back on racism. “In public discourse, it has become appropriate to have arguments and pretend they are political, even though they are actually more blatantly racist. In the past they were trying to hide them. Now they are not.”

While he enjoys the chance to try “about 100 new things” for Chippendales, Nanjiani has no specific plans for what’s next. He’s not done with romantic comedies or comedy, or even if he never again puts his own life in his unfiltered material as he has in the past.

“I’m not a very nostalgic person,” she says. “I have good memories, but I don’t really revisit events. If I did something and it pops up and people like it, it doesn’t make much sense to me because I just moved on. I would love for people to love everything I do, but I don’t really dwell on it. It’s about whatever is the most exciting thing that has come out. Ideally, it forces me to be good at something I didn’t have to be good at before.”

However, it doesn’t necessarily require a new genre or a year at the gym or sensitive exploration of a vulnerable moment in his life. “I would love to do something with the sword,” he says. You suspect you’ll find a way.

Welcome to Chippendales now on Disney+

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