It has been almost a month since Netflix's survival drama "Squid Game" released and things changed diametrically for Indian actor Anupam Tripathi, the breakout star of the survival drama series, who is basking in "people's love" for his performance as the soft-spoken and trusting migrant worker Ali Abdul. Tripathi remembers the brief given by director Hwang Dong-hyuk after he landed the part of Ali, a Pakistani factory labourer, who like the other 455 participants is reeling under debt and signs on to participate in a deadly survival competition based on Korean children's games after his employer refuses to pay him for months.
"The director's brief was (to focus on) how he builds his relationships with people. He is someone who saves people. Even if he had a problem, he worked for people he trusted. With a simple gesture, somebody can make him feel 'you are my homie and all'," the actor told PTI in a roundtable interview on Zoom from Seoul.
To look the part, New Delhi-born Tripathi said he worked hard on his physique and gained 6 kg. Ali gets a very unlikely but heroic scene right towards the end of the first episode of the nine-part series, when he saves co-contestant Seong Gi-hun, played by South Korean star Lee Jung-jae. Tripathi said that sets the tone for his character in the show.
"I had to run and jump around, those takes were very fascinating for me. They took all the energy out of me. I never felt like it was a heroic entry but after watching it people are telling me 'Man, you're good!'... It's people's love."
The actor, who moved to South Korea in 2010 to attend the Korea National University of Arts (K Arts), said the character of Ali is "iconic" in a way as it offers a peek into cultures and issues. Tripathi said the scene (where he saves Seong Gi-hun) was also close to his heart as that was where he met Lee, who gave him the confidence to "play around" during the performance in his own way.
"I was holding him and he said to me 'Just do the way you want to do, be free, don't worry about anything'," he added.
"Squid Game" also gave the actor a chance to move on from minor, often nameless migrant roles to a character that had a name and an arc, a rarity in Korean dramas for non-Korean people.
His previous works include hit TV shows like "Descendants of the Sun", "Hospital Playlist" and "Taxi Driver" and films "Space Sweepers" and "Ode to My Father", which was remade in Hindi as "Bharat".
Following five years of doing theatre in Delhi, he won an Arts Major Asian scholarship to study acting at the K Arts, which he credits for giving him the confidence to show his craft. Learning Korean was initially a challenge, but the actor said he went "step by step" to pursue his acting dream.
"I spent three-and-half months learning the language. Since the base was in English, I thought I could easily cope with everything. But when you enter the university properly and those terms in acting in Korean (come up), you just keep your eyes open for two years. Grammatically, I might be wrong in Korean but I can now perform better with the feeling of the language."
The journey has not been easy, but like Ali, Tripathi said, he is also a survivor.
"I kept on working to say to people 'One guy from far away came here and he's showing his skills and craft.' They categorise foreign actors and all, but I always thought of myself as an actor. (Once you think like that), you can deal with everything. I can do anything."
What kept him going was his passion for acting, he said, adding that he "cried like a baby" on reaching South Korea and was adamant to go back home.
"Slowly, things started looking up when I started getting better with the language, the people here were so warm to me. There were times where for a month you don't have any work, you don't have a scholarship also. I worked in restaurants. I have done whatever I could to survive."
The actor, who wanted to be part of India's distinguished National School of Drama after watching a play at its Abhimanch auditorium in 2007, said people often discouraged him about taking up acting as a profession but he couldn't let it go as it was "so much fun for me".
"I was really passionate about what I was doing... Suddenly somebody came up with the idea that there's a scholarship. If you apply nobody will question you, you can tell everybody. You can do what you want to do."
"Squid Game" has become a sort of introduction guide to Korean dramas, especially for the audiences in South East Asia who have criticised Ali's depiction as "servile" and "foolish" on social media. Some voices have also called out the show for taking an Indian actor to play the role of a Pakistani worker.
"Through Ali, I was not thinking about these issues. I was only thinking about how as an actor I can deliver it, how I'll make the connection with the audience.
"I did not imagine even in my dreams that people would talk about my character. Whatever I'm doing, I can still make people connect to each other and have a conversation at least," he said.
Going forward, Tripathi said he would love to perform in "my language, in front of my own audience". The actor, who is fluent in Hindi, English and Korean, said he is up for projects from India as long as they are good stories with well-written characters.
"I want to share stories with people, I want to be a storyteller. The best thing I know is acting. I want to fail, learn, and win but through my work... So I want to share whatever I can with the audiences in the best way possible."