Words by Siddhant Adlakha
There are many unique dimensions to the tale of Somen “Steve” Banerjee, an Indian immigrant who established the Chippendales chain of male strip clubs in the late ’70s. The Hulu miniseries Welcome to Chippendales (finale airs tonight, Jan. 3, 2023 on Hulu) attempts to tell his story from several angles—his Bombay backdrop, his immigrant struggles, his entrepreneurial rise and fall, and even his prejudices—but it casts too wide a net over its subject matter. It spreads itself too thin between its characters and subplots, giving few of them the requisite time or narrative focus to effectively dramatize the tale of one of America’s strangest, most enigmatic 20th century figures.
Based on the 2014 Banerjee biography by K. Scot Macdonald and Patrick MontesDeOca—titled Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders, to give you a sense of where the story is headed—the series fights an uphill battle based on its source material alone. Macdonald and MontesDeOca’s book is a headache, a mish-mash of events presented in no discernible order and with a distinct lack of panache in its prose, and much more speculation about Banerjee’s outlook as an immigrant than anything resembling concrete facts (let alone enrapturing drama). Show creator Robert Siegel, therefore, takes liberty after liberty with real events, occasionally to great effect. However, the series’ key problems often lie in its aesthetics, from the way it travels through its lurid setting, to the way its colors in the details of Banerjee himself, who’s played by comedian Kumail Nanjiani (Hollywood’s go-to South Asian leading man no matter the occasion).
Departures from reality are rarely de facto negatives, but in the case of how Welcome to Chippendales presents its protagonist, they pile up rather quickly. For one thing, Banerjee was a more rotund man than the muscular Nanjiani (or the much leaner Dev Patel, who’s been cast in an upcoming biopic), but this major difference isn’t just about his shape. It’s about the way he carried himself, with an effective, serpentine faux-suaveness, and a calculated, slimy “cool,” as if he saw himself as one of his muscle-bound dancers, or at least, tried to project a similar aura. Even brief clips of the real Banerjee tell a story: there’s something mysterious and magnetic about him that Nanjiani doesn’t bring to the screen.
Even brief clips of the real Banerjee tell a story: there’s something mysterious and magnetic about him that Nanjiani doesn’t bring to the screen.
Instead, the show and Nanjiani conceive of a much more rigid Banerjee, who rarely swings his arms, and rarely departs from his straightforward way of speaking. That’s another problem, too. Nanjiani’s stiffness bleeds into his accent and tone of voice, and the way he disguises his more American intonations from real life, beneath something more traditionally (and recognizably) South Asian. The real Banerjee, meanwhile, had more of a droll Americanness to his speech, which didn’t sound quite right because of the constant effort he seemed to be putting in. Nanjiani’s accent, therefore, clashes with the show’s central theme of who Banerjee was: an Indian man trying desperately to fit into Hollywood’s upper echelons.
While the series rarely affords Nanjiani the chance to move past this rigidity, its fictitious flourishes often work. Little is known about Banerjee’s wife, Irene, but the sweet version of her played by Annaleigh Ashford slots perfectly into the series. At times, she fits in a little too conveniently—when Irene meets Banerjee, his strip joint is bleeding money through its bar practices, and she just happens to be an accountant and a bartender—but once the conveniences are dispensed with, Ashford slowly morphs into the series’ heart and soul. Irene is, in many ways, the conscience that Banerjee rejects, during his quest for money and power.
Ashford slowly morphs into the series’ heart and soul. Irene is, in many ways, the conscience that Banerjee rejects, during his quest for money and power.
The way that quest is structured is clunky on occasion. A pair of characters presented as co-leads in the first episode don’t appear in subsequent entries; there’s a good real-world reason for this, but their inflated roles feel strange, since they’re mere footnotes in the book. Soon, two new characters take their place: closeted choreographer Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett)—a key adversarial figure in Banerjee’s life—and costume designer Denise (Juliette Lewis), an amalgam of various real-world figures, who seldom leaves De Noia’s side. With these major pieces in play, Welcome to Chippendales begins moving them around its chessboard, but apart from De Noia’s increasing frustrations at playing second fiddle to Banerjee (which Bartlett conveys with wordless, sympathetic precision), the show becomes increasingly repetitive about its intra-Chippendales tensions.
This is owed to the fact that there’s little momentum or evolution to Banerjee. For about seven and a half of the show’s eight 40-minute episodes, he’s the shrewd businessman he always was, right from the opening scene, but even the way his practices manifest ends up whitewashing his story. The early introduction of Otis (Quentin Plair), a fictitious Black dancer at his club—and a wannabe businessman whom Banerjee takes under his wing—frames Banerjee’s perspective on Blackness as something largely nonchalant until it comes time to make business decisions. As was the case for many South Asians at the time, the real Banerjee’s racism was far more overt and to-the-point.
It’s a strange departure, even though the fictitious Banerjee is eventually sued for discriminatory practices. And while this approach hints at the fraught dynamic between money and morality, the show’s attempts to give him greater dimensions by rationalizing his actions—whether as a ricocheting of other people’s racism towards him, or a mere blind spot created by his drive to succeed—end up flattening him in the process.
His one-track mind—his distinctly American mantra of winning at any cost—turns him cold and mechanical, especially toward the club’s handyman, Ray Colon (Robin de Jesús), a minor character in the show’s grander scheme. However, Colon occupied a vital dramatic space in Banerjee's real life, as the closest thing he had to an actual friend. Yet Colon was someone he frequently manipulated into doing his bidding, including skirting the law on his behalf. The show, instead, turns Colon into a Banerjee sycophant, in turn robbing Nanjiani of the chance to play a more nuanced version of the character, someone for whom even genuine connection was but a stepping stone to greater, uglier purpose.
It’s also a tale of salaciousness and sexual revolution in which male bodies and female libidos are merely things to be captured from afar, rather than either reveled in or reviled.
This results in many of the series’ criminal elements being swept under the rug, turning it into a crime story in which there’s very little actual crime. On top of that, it’s also a tale of salaciousness and sexual revolution in which male bodies and female libidos are merely things to be captured from afar, rather than either reveled in or reviled. Even the moral battle over Banerjee’s venture unfolds quietly in the background, mostly off-screen. There’s plenty of stripping to behold, but the camera’s lens remains largely un-involved. It’s surprisingly un-sexy, and has a blasé approach to sexuality, for a tale of such revolutionary voyeurism (ironically, Magic Mike, a movie that feels descended from Banerjee’s real story, pulls-off Scarface-with-strippers much more effectively).
As a drama about a fraught marriage, it sometimes works, but the show is at its most effective when following De Noia’s tale of dashed dreams, and his attempts to find happiness after a lifetime of disappointment. Unfortunately, Welcome to Chippendales seldom does the same for Banerjee. It ends up limiting his story to the broad strokes of his immigrant saga and his outsidership—rather than the alluringly deceitful ways he tried to worm his way into American society.
Published on January 3, 2023
Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter