Who is Anupam Tripathi, the breakout Indian actor in 'Squid Game'?

Star of hit South Korean series says it's his 'ultimate dream' to act in a movie back home

On Instagram, Indian actor Anupam Tripathi's follower numbers jumped from 3,000 to more than 3 million "in a matter of days" following the September release of Squid Game, Netflix's most-watched show in history. If there's a barometer to measure a previously unknown actor's rise to stardom in our social media-driven age, then this is it.

Tripathi, 32, who plays Abdul Ali, a Pakistani migrant who will go to any lengths to support his family, is one of the South Korean survival drama's breakout stars. Impressing fans of the record-breaking show with his fluent Korean and acting chops, as well as his character's heartbreaking storyline, the stage-trained actor says it's been his "ultimate dream" to star in a film back home in India.

A theatrical beginning

Born in Delhi, where he also grew up, Tripathi's primary interest was classical music. But a small role as a slave in the play Spartacus changed all that. Tripathi joined the Behroop Theatre Group from 2006 to 2010, where he was mentored by the late playwright Shahid Anwar.

“I enjoyed every bit of it, because in going in front of the audience and expressing myself, it was so fascinating to become somebody and then again become myself,” he told Variety of his theatre years.

Tripathi had intended to go to the National School of Drama, which has produced some of India's finest actors, but when an arts major scholarship he had applied for at the Korea National University of Arts was accepted, he changed course and headed to Seoul instead.

He took some time to settle in South Korea

"When I came to Korea, I cried like a baby for three and a half months. I wanted to go back home," Tripathi told Film Companion. "My passport was in the office, that's why I was not able to leave."

But the aspiring actor persevered and, although language was initially an issue, he mastered Korean in less than two years.

"Things started getting better with the language and with the people," he recalled. "My friends, my classmates, my seniors ... everybody was so warm to me."

Upon graduating, Tripathi appeared in several films and series for three years, including the hit film Ode to My Father, the hit series Descendants of the Sun and the 2021 film Space Sweepers. “There was no small role for me, I kept on going in this field,” he told Variety.

Hitting the gym for 'Squid Game'

Tripathi was contacted by a South Korean casting agency in 2020 for the role that would make him a global star. Fluent in Korean by then, he first met the show's casting director before being introduced to Squid Game writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk who briefed him about the role of Abdul Ali.

Tripathi said he didn't have "the correct body shape" for the role when he was cast.

“I gained 5 or 6 kilograms and at least looked like somebody who has some power," he told Variety.

The Hindi speaker also says that he had to watch YouTube videos and documentaries about Pakistani migrants in South Korea to fine-tune his Urdu and learn their mannerisms.

“I tried to go as close as I could to the character. I kept on thinking it’s going to be released in 190 countries, so how can I connect with the audience as a character," he said.

He shot the show for much of 2020, with a month's break in between owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I really enjoyed working with this team, it was wonderful. The sets are majestic, magical – you go there, you become the character. That’s the kind of stage they have created," he told Variety. "It helped everybody to evolve better. It was not that easy a process. But everybody was together. Ali came out from there and now everybody’s talking about it. I feel happy.”

Overnight success

Squid Game's runaway international popularity has taken many South Koreans by surprise, most of all some of the show's fresh faces, including Tripathi.

"I still remember the day of the release, till 4pm my life was OK, but after 5pm, everybody started talking about my role, and I saw the love pouring on Instagram,” Tripathi told India's Hindustan Times. His followers "went from 3,000 to three million in a matter of days".

“The love that I am getting after the show is growing every day," he said. "It feels great to be part of such a historical thing. At the same time, it [fame] is also new to me. So I am still observing myself, trying to express myself and enjoy it as much as I can.”

Next: making it big in India

While a sequel to Squid Game is still being considered, Tripathi is setting his sights on making it big back home in India.

"This was just the starting point for me. Let’s see how far I can move on in a better way as an actor or on my craft," he told Variety. "I’ve only done theatre in India, but I want to see and explore how I will do in my own language. That is my ultimate dream – to perform in front of my own home and own audience.”

Updated: October 23rd 2021, 8:08 AM