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Kumail Nanjiani: 'Chippendales' was inadvertently feminist

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Kumail Nanjiani stars in "Welcome to Chippendales." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/5e4f7f0e759b521e728d58b94b59d7f3/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Kumail Nanjiani stars in "Welcome to Chippendales." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Kumail Nanjiani said Welcome to Chippendales, premiering Tuesday on Hulu, shows how the male stripper troupe promoted feminism. Nanjiani plays Chippendales founder Somen "Steve" Banerjee.

"He did create the space where women could express their sexuality loudly, where women owned their sexuality," Nanjiani said on a recent Television Critics Association panel.

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Set in the '70s, Welcome to Chippendales shows how Banerjee saved $40,155 managing a gas station and invested those savings in the backgammon club, Destiny II.

Following months of sparse attendance, Banerjee got the idea to turn Destiny II into a male strip club after visiting a gay bar. He renamed his club Chippendales, after the cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale because, according to the show, "it's classy."

Chippendales found success attracting female customers who, Nanjiani said, kept their sexuality quiet in pre-1970s society.

"So he did create this space where women could really express themselves in a way that they had not been able to in a big group like that," Nanjiani said. "However, that was not why he created that space. He was trying to just make money."

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Feminism paid off for Banerjee, though. Banerjee sold empowerment to women when it improved his bottom line.

"He sort of hit on a great idea at just the right time," Nanjiani said. "Then, he used the feminism angle when he needed to -- to become more successful."

Banerjee immigrated from India seven years before opening Destiny II. While the origin of Chippendales is an enticing hook, Naniani says the show tells a more universal story.

"It really becomes about what it means to be successful in America and the kind of things that you have to do to be successful in America, particularly as someone who's not American," Nanjiani said.

"How does America treat someone who doesn't look like how a lot of the country thinks Americans should look?"

Banerjee married accountant Irene (Annaleigh Ashford), who worked behind the scenes in the Chippendales business. Ashford, 37, said the opening of Chippendales coincided with the feminist movement's political activity in the '70s.

"The Chippendales story was tethered to the movement of women in this country gaining rights and finding their voices," Ashford said. "The club challenged our hetero-normative views of the way that women are supposed to behave in a sexual way."

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Ashford said that although Chippendales relied on men as dancers, choreographers, and businessmen, it was women who made them a success. Women were the main customer base, and Ashford said Welcome to Chippendales positions Irene as "a woman who's really running the show."

Ashford said Irene essentially had to pull the strings of male frontmen to operate in the business world in the '70s. But, Ashford said, Steve could not have done it alone.

"A lot of women in that era had to hide behind their husbands to run the show, and I think she was one of those ladies," Ashford said. "The engine really moved because of her."

When Steve decides to hire male strippers, he needs choreography. Murray Bartlett plays choreographer Nick De Noia.

"I am a choreographer in the show, so I don't have to look as good as the dancers, but I still have to know the stuff," Bartlett said. "There's not a pressure for me to make it perfect because I am the choreographer."

The scene in which Nick auditions the Chippendales dancers proved exhausting for Bartlett. The scene was filmed in a parkling lot under punishing heat.

"We were dancing from what felt like sunrise to sundown in this baking parking area, but it was super fun," Bartlett said. "I didn't realize until we stopped how tired I was."

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When friction grew between Steve and Nick, Steve granted Nick the rights to tour with Chippendales and leave the New York club. They wrote this deal on a napkin.

However, Steve regretted this when the touring shows became successful. In the end, courts held the napkin as a legally binding contract in Nick's favor.

"It's a big part of our show, but I couldn't believe that," Nanjiani said. "I didn't know that I could write something on a napkin, sign it, and then America would make me stick to it."

New episodes of Welcome to Chippendales stream Tuesdays on Hulu.

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