Opinion: Kumail Nanjiani and the Hollywood Gaze

Nanjiani is the latest to go through a physical transformation that seems like a requirement for Brown men in Hollywood to get mainstream roles.

Amil Niazi

July 13, 2021

Opinion: Kumail Nanjiani and the Hollywood Gaze
Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail Nanjiani/Instagram)

Kumail Nanjiani is set to have a blockbuster 2021. The Pakistani American comedian, actor, writer, and producer is currently filming Obi-Wan Kenobi, a new Disney+ mini-series. He will star alongside Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, and Gemma Chan in Eternals, a $200-million-budget mammoth Marvel film set to premiere in November. In Eternals, directed by Oscar-winning Chloé Zhao, Nanjiani will take on the role of  Kingo, an immortal alien who shoots cosmic energy from his hands.

While the casting of Nanjiani is being hailed as a major win for South Asian representation in Hollywood, the drastic physical changes he’s undergone for the role point to a growing concern surrounding toxic male body standards, particularly among Brown men who already lack diverse, healthy role models on film. When Nanjiani first unveiled (unleashed?) his shirtless “after” muscle-and-vein laden superhero physique on Instagram, there was a collective gasp across the internet. The post has nearly 300,000 likes, and articles about the actor’s “incredible body transformation” immediately started cropping up. 

While headlines were both horny and celebratory, his rigorous body modification poses some complicated questions. The body that Nanjiani worked so hard to build, one that he was now being praised for, is a decidedly Western stereotype of a military weapon disguised as a superhero. The process required to get him to that body, as he detailed, was brutal and perhaps not sustainable for the everyman. And the character Nanjiani emulates, who, in the movie, has a secret life as a Bollywood star — a choice that deviates from the original comics the character is based off of — threatens to fall prey to the kind of one-dimensional portrayals of Brown men that continue to plague the industry. 

Best known for playing programming nerd Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley, Nanjiani has never been associated with the shredded Marvel physique. His 2013 Comedy Central stand-up special was notably titled “Beta Male.” Consequently, his new body reveal was dramatic, punctuated by the actor’s own caption detailing the multiple personal trainers, grueling workouts, and customized meal plans it took to achieve his new look.