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We Need To Talk About Kumail
Nanjiani, for those wondering
You all get it. You know the deal by now, you know what you signed up for, yada yada yada, you can tell I’m trapped in a prison of my own making. I watch an insane number of YouTube videos. There’s no denying it. Here’s one that I have maybe watched more than any other:
Forget the photos—this video, released on the eve of COVID in the U.S. like some harbinger of a long, national nightmare, is what truly sent me packing. This video is nuts. Outside of the wild claim that sugar snap peas have replaced chips for him in the snack pantheon; disregarding the unopened one pound pack of ground bison, which he uses to unconvincingly tell us he makes a lot of “buffalo burgers…?”; even moving past the way he says the phrase “big arms”—what the fuck are watching here? Kumail Nanjiani showing us beet juice from his fake fridge that the Men’s Health producers stocked right before the video? This is Dinesh from Silicon Valley? This is Kumail from the The Meltdown? This is this guy?
I felt betrayed, at first. Like my man who had made a living off of being a normal-looking Muslim guy—and a pretty funny one, at that—was now a roided-out Marvel character who talked about whey powder in interviews. But betrayal gave way quickly, to a flash of jealousy, and then to nothing much at all—it was more confusion than anything.
I would posit that many guys, post-puberty, go through a phase of “working out at the gym.” I certainly did. As a sophomore, junior, senior in high school, I concluded that I could no longer get away with just playing basketball for hours after class; I needed to get cut as hell. Except, when you start going to the gym in high school, you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing—even more so if you’re an Indian kid. You could catch me at the JCC doing bicep curls for five sets of 12, walking around for a bit and slapping my friend on the inner thigh as he was doing bench presses to get a laugh, then heading over to the part of the gym with the mirror and doing skull crushers for three sets of 10. After that, maybe I’d try out some tricep pulldown machine, watch a guy who looked like he knew what he was doing and then copy him, maybe do a few dips here and there, and finish off with some planks over in the corner where the mats are. This took about two hours, and achieved nothing. Most of it consisted of talking shit with my boys, exaggeratedly taking sips of water as if I were tired, and wearing big Nike basketball shorts with long Nike Elite socks.
But in my head, I was convinced that this was a necessity. If I wanted to remain cool, and if I wanted girls to notice me, the gym was where I needed to go, day after day, to sculpt my arms into big, veiny bricks that someone would glance at when I picked up a backpack off the ground. A latent part of the developing Indian kid brain is to fantasize about having sick biceps, and then being able to dunk. Not many people know about this.
Most of us have this phase for a few years, and then eventually settle into some other routine. But very few of us do this in our forties! And even fewer are notable public figures.
Kumail is on the press tour right now, talking about his huge body and being sad about it. The reddit forum NattyOrJuice has had a field day examining his vascularity for clear signs of steroids—although some of their scientific logic has to be called into question.
Let’s put the phrase “More like all Indians have dogshit genetics” aside for next week (in general, I agree). What are we, the discerning public, the Marvel’s Eternals stans, to make of all this? Bad question. What am I, the South Asian Muslim guy, to make of all this?
I hope he’s still funny. There was a time when he could pull off some of the best bits on Silicon Valley, could surprise with a genuinely hilarious improvised line, could write a scene that is (cringe) at once funny and relatable! But now he is jacked, and he is sad. If you were to examine the Muslim Kid psyche, this would be it—a winding road, for sure, but Kumail has made it. He’s famous, he has an unnatural jawline, his forearms have veins, and his emotional state is perfectly calibrated for Drake lyrics to accompany his Instagram stories. Isn’t this what every masjid bro aspires to?
But there’s something that sticks in the craw, some unnameable feature of all this that renders it cloying and unearned (internalized racism much…). This life is not meant for us. In Bollywood, sure, but here? Kumail already found his lane—why deviate? And why do it in such a public, grotesque fashion, all in service of a character named “Kingo” who is maybe sixth on the call sheet?
There’s a certain element to this public narrative that is pure body horror. I think the body dysmorphia stuff he talks about, with regards to South Asian dudes, is real. But what about some strain of projected dysmorphia, of being unable to shake the image of a body that is not yours but could be? If your popular conception of a guy is him standing on a stage in a t-shirt and ill-fitting jeans, it is genuinely jarring to then watch his face transform into some mangled, funhouse-mirror version of itself. What if the revulsion sticks around longer because you saw yourself in him?
In the Vulture profile, Kumail is open and honest about his brushes with prejudice, and feeling desexualized due to his ethnic background. A cynical read would be that his publicist (and Marvel’s PR machine) has committed to this story of becoming huge and then feeling shitty about it. But I believe where he’s coming from; it’s not hard to draw a line from me roasting his jeans to the average person thinking he’s just a prop for tech jokes. And there’s no doubt that Kumail has endured his fair share of publicly humiliating incidents:
But beyond a genuine fascination with the “why” of his physical transformation, my main feeling is one of, “What is going on here, and what are we watching?” The guy is publicly, and forcefully, trying to change the conversation around himself, in a way that is not entirely convincing and more than a little embarrassing. But if the onus of recognition, of feeling “represented” in the cultural sphere, is on the audience and not the performer, then I guess Kumail getting jacked (and my evident displeasure with it) says much more about me than it does his cocktail of trenbolone and HGH. I just hope we can all go to heaven and laugh about it one day. Him, dapping me up with his goofy smile; me, receiving and returning his dap with huge biceps of my own. All right in front of the Angel Azrael.
And now, of course, we must Power Rank the Hollywood Muslim Dudes:
(Unranked: Aziz Ansari)
Nabeel and I are close friends. We live together, we talk almost every day, and we talk a lot about being Indian-American. But through it all, a fundamental rift has persisted, which is that I think Indian kids be like this:
While Nabeel thinks Indian kids be like this: