Growing up in New Delhi, India, even I’d heard of Chippendales. I didn’t have any particular knowledge or insight into exactly who they were or what they did. But I had some vague sense of mullet-haired, mustachioed men, bare-chested and wearing breakaway pants, performing sexy dances. I have no idea where I got these mental images from. But clearly, the troupe of male exotic dancers had permeated pop culture.
It was just last year, in fact, that I discovered that this world famous phenomenon was started by an Indian-American immigrant named Somen Banerjee, with help from Nick De Noia, a Hollywood choreographer and Emmy-winning children’s program creator. I learned this when I read a description of Welcome to Your Fantasy, a podcast released in 2021, which detailed the story of greed, corruption and murder behind the “oiled pecs and non-stop parties.” It sounded like a story ripe for an on-screen treatment.
And now here it is: Welcome to Chippendales is an eight-part series available in Canada on Disney+, starring Kumail Nanjiani as Somen “Steve” Banerjee and Murray Bartlett as Nick De Noia, along with Juliette Lewis as fashion designer/talent wrangler Denise and Annaleigh Ashford as wife/accountant Irene.
Turns out that screenwriter Robert Siegal (The Wrestler) had been pitching this story for a while, reportedly to feature big names like Dev Patel and Bollywood star Aamir Khan. However, it was not until Siegel earned some Hulu success with Pam & Tommy and re-pitched the idea as a sprawling true-crime saga that the project finally got greenlit.
The first three episodes of the series establish the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll – or rather disco tunes – of the times. We meet Somen, an immigrant working in a gas station who saves up his money by eating stale sandwiches and basically not having a life. He’s got a mind for business, we hear from his boss, who offers him a promotion. But Somen, who starts to go by Steve, has grander plans. He wants to be like his role model Hugh Hefner.
With his savings, Steve buys a decrepit discotheque, with aspirations to build a gentleman’s lounge. The first few attempts at offering entertainment, including female mud wrestling, are abysmal failures. A night at a gay bar inspires Steve to start Chippendales, borrowing the name from Victorian cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale, to evoke a sense of class. Steve senses there’s a gap in the market. It’s the late ‘70s and there are no venues offering male strippers. The idea is an instant hit.
The thronging crowds eventually bring in Nick De Noia, who comes in to suss out the competition – as a choreographer. Steve, who has a keen sense for business and the people he wants to surround himself with to make his business even bigger, asks Nick to join him. It’s a tenuous relationship from the get go. Even when the team of four geniuses – Steve, Nick, Irene and Denise – coalesces, the cracks are pretty obvious.
As much as he was reluctant to play the bad guy, Nanjiani manages to pull off Steve – for the most part. If you listen to the podcast, you get a sense of the subtle Bangla-inflected English that Steve spoke, which Nanjiani doesn’t quite match. Nevertheless, for the few moments that Nanjiani does speak in Hindi, it doesn’t grate the ear because of his clear familiarity with the language. (The fact that there’s a natural Pakistani/Urdu inflection, since Nanjiani grew up in Karachi, seems like a quibble at this point of representation in Hollywood.)
If you’ve been mostly familiar with Nanjiani’s comic roles – Silicon Valley, The Big Sick, Stuber – his performance as Steve will appear pretty solid. There’s a certain stiffness to Steve, which plays well for an immigrant who is trying to fit in but also has a huge ego and lofty aspirations. His taciturn demeanour works really well with Bartlett’s vivacious approach to Nick. As much as someone might want to snigger at the idea of male exotic dancers, Nick – along with Denise – understood that they were actually creating art with Chippendales. There’s a huge amount of creativity that goes into making a spectacle that will draw in audiences night after night.
While the male egos of Steve and Nick are clashing with each other, it’s up to the women – natch – to calm things down and keep the relationships, besides the business, going. Irene is a whiz with numbers, but can also see when Steve is hurting. Denise understands Nick’s frustrations at being constantly undermined but also senses that Steve is battling his own personal demons. Of course, neither man really listens to the women, storming off into their personal sulking sessions.
How does it all come tumbling down? If you ignore the sordid details behind the story of Chippendales, it’s basically the follies of human nature. And when you look past the pelvic thrusts and screaming female audiences, it’s that primal story that makes up the truly tantalizing aspect of this show.
Welcome to Chippendales is available to stream on Disney+ with Star starting Nov. 22
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