I just watched a fascinating documentary on Chippandales! Not that the documentary itself was really REALLY good, but that the story is really really good. And, I think, hits that DCIB sweet spot of thinking about Indian American Big Issues.
Where to start? I guess with Chippandales itself and what it is. It is an iconic male strip club, back in the 80s and 90s it was everywhere and it still has massive name/brand recognition. The men were clean cut and handsome and wore tuxedo collars and cuffs and pants but no shirt. The whole idea of the male stripper for women came out from this club. They were a little naughty, but at the same time mainstream. It was okay to go see them, you didn’t have to feel ashamed or embarrassed, they were nice “wholesome” guys who went on talk shows and said how their wives were proud of what they did and so on and so forth.
This catering to the female gaze was a huge industry changing shift, a massive underserved market. It began with one “ladies night” at an LA club and turned into a massive touring stage show that sold out stadiums, a best selling calendar, music videos, an exercise tape, posters, all kinds of crazy merchandise. And behind it was “Steve” Banarjee, immigrant from Bombay who built this whole empire catering to the American woman.
The first thought that comes to mind, of course, is “did an awareness of Bombay films and their openness to the female gaze influence his concepts?” Maybe! Certainly the idea of attractive men dancing and women going crazy for the dancing would have been there. But what I find more interesting is the outsider/insider view of American culture.
Americans were blind to this gap in the market because we had gotten so used to seeing it. Sure, women screamed for the Beatles and Elvis, but no one ever thought “wait, what if we created a show specifically for women to scream and let down inhibitions?” Steve Banarjee saw one semi-successful ladies night experiment at his club and realized there was something there. He read women’s magazines, he read fashion magazines, he analyzed the American woman audience like it was a lab rat, like it was removed from himself, and he saw what everyone else had been missing.
That’s fascinating! And that’s one of the reasons overseas entrepreneurs can become SO successful in new countries. They can see what everyone else is too close to see. An American man wouldn’t be able to acknowledge that women want a safe place to go crazy and explore sexuality, because that would mean acknowledging that his sister, his mother, his wife wants such a place. But Banarjee had no hang ups, he just went for it.
On the other hand, it can also be bad to be that far outside, that far removed, because there were some things he accepted without interrogating them. The biggest was No Black Men. He looked at the fashion magazines and the movies and everywhere else, and clearly the American woman did not desire Black Men. Because they weren’t there. He missed the whole historical context which made any acknowledgement of cross-racial desire taboo. He didn’t hire Black dancers and, eventually, he had a practice of turning away Black men from his club, thinking the women wouldn’t want them in the crowd. Until he turned away a law clerk for a federal judge, one who was young and handsome and well dressed and clearly had no reason for being denied entry beyond the color of his skin. Banarjee both mistook racist images as reflecting reality, and did not understand the serious legal liability he was leaving himself open too. Because that wasn’t part of the visible pop culture either, if you see every TV show, every movie with an all White cast, you just assume no one cares.
Those two things alone I find FASCINATING about this story! An outsider who was seeing something pop culture revealed that everyone else was blind to (the clear monetary power of female desire), while at the same time blinding accepting the backwards prejudices also in pop culture. But then it gets weirder.
Steve Banarjee wanted a partner, he wanted a club in New York, he had in his head that New York was the big shiney special place. Again, this feels familiar. Like the Indian movies that always send their leads to Harvard or Oxford, the outsized importance given to places that have name recognition. And in order to get it to New York, he took on a partner, Nick Denoia. He didn’t feel confident enough to do it on his own, he had brown skin and an accent and didn’t know how things worked. Again, very familiar. And his American partner cheated him. Denoia convinced him to sign a contract giving Denoia touring rights to the Chippendales show “in perpetuity”. Steve didn’t even know what the word “perpetuity” meant, but wasn’t going to ask and lose face. So he just went ahead and signed.
Let’s go back to that perception and reality. The perception of immigrants with poor English skills is that they are naïve, easily tricked, and so on. And that can be a reality. Just like the interest among American women in entertainment catering to their sexual desires was a reality. But that perception and reality line up to support a prejudice, that immigrants are universally dumb and helpless, that they need to be protected. Immigrants may struggle with culture shock, with language, with finding a place in a new world. And we who already live here, as their hosts, have a responsibility to welcome and help them. Tricking them with legal language, BAD!!! But sometimes that sense of responsibility turns into pity which turns into patronizing and blind stereotypes.
Years ago when one of our governors went to jail (as happens every few years in Illinois, we have the BEST graft), a big part of the problem was just MASSIVE bribes from desi business people. Like, unbelievably obvious and huge bribes. True, this is a state that works on bribery. But in a particular Illinois kind of way. You don’t just write someone a check, you hire the firm where they are still a partner for legitimate legal work and then way overpay. Or you hire their brother-in-laws landscaping company for your offices. Or you donate to their campaign fund. Or, most often, you hire a ton of their idiot relatives to work at your business. You don’t just GIVE THEM MONEY. And you don’t do it as, like, idea number 1. You negotiate, you haggle, you try to do things semi-legally, and then you find a way to make it work. What made the story of this one governor remarkable was that the bribery didn’t feel, well, American!!!
Now, let’s go back to Steve Banarjee. Nick Denoia cheated him using tricky legal language. And he continued to cheat him by going on talk shows and organizing publicity campaigns identifying himself as the “founder and creator” of the Chippendales. Steve kept his head down and worked hard on the backend and created merchandising to support the show and the publicity and made millions. Noble Hardworking Oppressed Immigrant, right? But he also hired a hitman who killed Denoia. And he fire bombed rival clubs. And finally he hired another hitman to kill his former dancers who had started their own show. That was his downfall, the second hitman went to the cops, wore a wire, and got him on tape acknowledging everything.
Steve Banarjee blindly accepted that American women were racist and did not want to see Black men. And the American police force and everyone else blindly accepted that a brown man with an accent is cute and harmless and good with numbers, and would not organize a campaign of terror and violence.
I don’t want to say that the American entertainment world doesn’t have violence and murder. But just like there is a particular way to bribe people in Illinois, there is a particular American sort of feel to our entertainment world violence. And somehow someone who escalates so fast and so far, who does the violence without bothering with doing the threatening first, it just doesn’t feel “American”. It feels Indian. As I have come to know it from studying the film industry. Hrithik Roshan’s Dad was almost killed in a drive by. The week before I saw Shahrukh Khan live, the promoter for the show as shot in another drive by. Contract disputes are never solved, they just turn into endless court cases that will eventually be thrown out. And then there’s the other part of it, the immigrant who feels like the deck is stacked against him (because it is) and therefore he has no choice but to fight hard and dirty. Who truly sees no other options in front of him because he doesn’t know the options he should be seeing.
You see why I find this story so fascinating???? It took an outsider to see this enormous gap in the American market, but it also took an outsider to escalate a business dispute to unimaginable violence instead of using any other tool available to him.