To be a breakout star, like Anupam Tripathi from the recent phenomenon Squid Game, is to be confronted by the suddenness of fame. "I still remember, September 17, 2021, 4 p.m., my life was OK, but after 5 p.m., it became huge, humongous — suddenly everyone was messaging me and it was 'Ali,' 'Ali'," he said to Variety. Ali is the debt-ridden Pakistani immigrant character he portrays in the show which has become the most watched debut on Netflix, amassing over 111 million views since it debuted on September 17.
Also Read: Squid Game Review
Tripathi grew up in New Delhi, where from 2006 through 2010 he was part of the Behroop theater group, mentored by the late playwright Shahid Anwar, before he moved to South Korea to study acting at the Korea National University of the Arts with a scholarship. He has since acted in many K-dramas and movies, often in unnamed side characters — Ode to My Father (2014 — remade as Bharat), Space Sweepers (2021), and Hospital Playlist (2020). Squid Game was his breakout role. In a Netflix roundtable, Tripathi spoke about how he prepared for the character Ali, and about his plans to work in India.
In the first episode your character is introduced rather heroically, when you save Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), holding him so he doesn't get shot. What was the director's brief to you when you landed the role? How did you prepare for it?
I never felt like that was a heroic entry. Only after watching it, are people telling me, "Man, you're good." So I feel like it's people's love.
Since I got the nod that I am doing this character till the last day, I was with Ali only. I was working on my physique. I gained six kgs. I worked really hard to make him look like a migrant worker who has muscle buildup. The director's brief to me was about how Ali builds his relationship with everybody. He saves people, even when he has a problem with them. He works for people, he trusts people, he is innocent. And like, just with a simple gesture, somebody can make him feel like "Oh, you're my homie." He's that kind of character. That's why in the beginning itself, at least he can save one guy.
That's also where I met my senior actor, Lee Jung-jae. When I was holding him, he said to me, "Just do it the way you want to do it, and be free. Don't worry about anything." And that opened me up. If a senior is telling me to play around, let's play around as Ali.
How do you see the conversation that has sparked on social media around Ali and how he uses honorifics in general to address his seniors?
See, I was not thinking about all the issues you raised about Ali. I was only thinking as an actor — how can I present Ali, making that connection with the audience. Those things were in my mind. I was really not expecting what people were talking about. I was not even imagining in my dreams that people would talk about my character.
What's been the journey like in Korea?
I was doing theater in Delhi for five years. And through that I saw, in 2007, a play at NSD. I was learning classical vocals for a year, but I am not a good singer. I was really passionate about what I was doing. Suddenly somebody came up with this idea of a scholarship, through which I got to go to Korea. Then it all started step by step. I haven't looked too far. In the beginning I was only getting migrant characters. It was not that easy. They categorize you as a foreign actor. But I always feel like I'm just an actor.
I was thinking everything in Korea will be in English so I can easily cope with it. But those acting terms in Korean … you just open your eyes like HUH for two years. But I was always interested in how he's talking, how he's behaving. I was guessing all the time for two years. So that's why grammatically I might be wrong in Korean, but with the feeling of the language, I can perform better. That confidence I have.
It has been 11 years in Korea for me. So as an actor it was really hard but I'm always positive. That's how Ali is also, there is a similarity of survival. We both respect people who just trust us.
What kept you going during that difficult time?
When I came to Korea, I cried like a baby for three and a half months, that I want to go back home. My passport was in the office, that's why I was not able to leave. What kept me going was that I wanted to do this, that I chose it. How can I leave what I chose? Slowly things started getting better with the language with the people here — my friends, my classmates, my seniors, juniors, and then the people you meet while working. Everybody was so warm to me.
There were low times, hard times where for a month you don't have any work and you don't have a scholarship also so how to survive? I have worked in restaurants also and I've done whatever I had to do to survive, but that zeal of like, okay, it can happen, it will happen, I will make it happen. Something like that was inside me.
You had noted that your "ultimate dream" is to perform in India. Any plans to work in India?
Of course, I would love to perform in my own language in front of my own audience. If I'm allowed to perform, with good stories, with good characters I would love to, because I want to share stories with people. The best thing I know is acting. I want to fail, I want to learn, I want to win through my work only. I can speak three languages: Hindi, English, Korean. So, I am open to work in any of these three languages, to share whatever I can with the audience. That's my wish.