In just nine episodes, South Korean survival drama Squid Game is on track to become the biggest show in Netflix’s history. Set in Seoul, hundreds of desperate, cash-strapped contestants accept mysterious invites to take part in a series of traditional—but sinister—childhood games. Among them is Ali Abdul, a struggling factory worker from Pakistan fighting for his life and family. VICE interviewed actor Anupam Tripathi about his connection with Ali, his journey to stardom in South Korea, and what the role means in the greater call for representation.
Before anything else, note that there are Squid Game spoilers ahead. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Ali Abdul is a migrant factory worker who would become the ill-fated contestant 199 on Squid Game. The audience first catches a glimpse of his kindhearted nature and willingness to help even before they learn his name when, in the first episode, Ali steps forward to save protagonist Seong Gi-hun from being shot and killed in a violent game of Red Light, Green Light.
“I have played mostly migrant worker roles in movies and dramas… Ali was different in so many ways,” Tripathi, told VICE. “It was my first full-fledged character… The way he looked, the way he behaved, his background—so many questions were in my mind on how I was going to portray him.”
Racism, especially towards migrant workers, is a widespread social problem in South Korea. In the show, Ali is insulted and called an “illegal alien” by other players. As a person of color, he’s an outsider and knows that the odds would always be stacked against him in the unpredictable competition. “I don’t know how to play any of those games,” he tells Gi-hun and other players in one scene. But as the games progress and become darker, Ali emerges as a formidable fighting force, proving that he’s more than capable of standing his ground against those stronger and more aggressive. He proves to be a vital team player during the anxiety-inducing tug of war. As the very last member placed at the back of the line, he was tasked with carrying everyone’s weight. Tripathi said it was one of his favorite games to film.
His character is a massive win for minority representation in South Korea, where foreign actors often only land minor roles. On Squid Game, he joins a veteran cast with South Korean heavyweights like Lee Jung-jae and Park Hae-soo, and quickly become a fan favorite.
“For preparation, I met people, I watched documentaries, and read articles about migrant workers in Korea and abroad,” Tripathi said.
“For me, it’s all about portraying Ali to the best of my ability, and in the future, to play a variety of different roles so that we can see more representation across various platforms in Korea, and the world beyond.”
In the show, we learn about Ali’s difficult past and his reason for competing in the games. He’s an undocumented worker from Pakistan who is at the mercy of a cruel boss who refused to pay him for months, even after he lost some of his fingers while working at a factory.
“I want to make money,” Ali tells fellow player Sang-woo, who he quickly bonds with. He talks about his family, wanting to provide for his wife and newborn son.
Squid Game fans and observers have drawn parallels between the drama’s plot line and modern-day conflicts playing out in South Korea. Ali’s story arc, in particular, is especially poignant as the country faces criticism of its alleged exploitation and discrimination of some 200,000 poor and vulnerable workers from countries like India and Pakistan—at the hands of powerful companies and rich employers.
“Ali found himself back at the Squid Game all because his boss didn’t pay him for six months,” wrote writer Michelle Rennex. “He shouldn’t have even been in the Squid Game in the first place.” Others praised Ali’s politeness and respect for other contestants and inferred that like many poor laborers in South Korea, it was shaped by societal hierarchy and informed by the exploitation he experienced. “He shows empathy and respect that Koreans in the show lack,” noted one viewer. “He uses a lot of polite speech. It doesn’t mean that he is being subservient (as the subtitles make it sound) but he is following the rules of Korean society.”
“We don’t see [the character of Ali] for what it actually is: a defense mechanism he probably developed as a poor, brown skin immigrant to deal with the oppression he faces on a daily [basis],” noted another.
“He shows empathy and respect that Koreans in the show lack.”
Like others who go to South Korea, hoping to land their big break in Seoul, Delhi-born Tripathi had to overcome language and cultural barriers for more than a decade. But like Ali, he remained positive and didn’t give up easily, eventually scoring roles in films like Ode to My Father and the hit 2016 K-drama Descendants of the Sun.
“Challenges are part of the game we choose to be a part of,” Tripathi said. Along the way, he made friends and learned a great deal about South Korea and its culture. “I knew there were going to be challenges but I am a very positive, curious and friendly guy… that’s how I spent an enjoyable 11 years in Korea.”
Competition for the role of Ali was fierce (Tripathi said he went through at least three rounds of auditions), but his hard work paid off when he won over writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk, who raved about Tripathi’s talents in a studio interview.
“It was hard to find good foreign actors in Korea,” Hwang said, recalling how Tripathi appeared “out of the blue.” “He was fluent in Korean and he could act. His emotional acting was amazing, too.”
Tripathi recalled the life-changing moment he got the call from Netflix. “I started dancing with joy. I immediately shared the news with my family and friends,” he said. But he admitted that there was immense pressure and responsibility on his part, upon learning that the series was going to be shown in 190 countries.
He was blown away by the script and said he read it “in one sitting.”
“I was like, ‘What is this? It’s crazily amazing,’” he said. “The biggest hook for me was how characters would live or die through a series of childhood games, and as you go deeper into the script, you’ll notice that each character has their own personal conflict.”
For Tripathi, every day on set was “a mesmerizing experience.”
“It was so beautiful aesthetically. I look forward with great excitement each day I get to go on set and play Ali Abdul, and I’ll carry these memories with me for a long time,” he said.
Of course, those who have watched Squid Game or know how survival dramas go know that characters usually meet a tragic end. In Ali’s case, it’s at the hands of someone he trusts, during a pivotal scene in the series’ sixth episode. For fans of the show, the betrayal cut deep. Ali’s death (and tear-filled eyes when he learns the truth) became one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the entire series.
“Ali’s role in Squid Game taught us that no matter how kind or innocent you are, some people will still abuse and use you,” wrote one heartbroken fan. “All I’m gonna say is Ali deserved the world,” said another.
“I would love to give them all a hug personally and express my gratitude for their love for Ali Abdul,” Tripathi said, adding that he sees and reads fan responses from all over the world.
So here’s to Ali Abdul, whose kindness and bravery set him apart from the crowds of people willing to backstab, betray, and kill to get what they want.
And yes, Tripathi got to keep his player 199 tracksuit.
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