91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What 'Squid Game' gets right and wrong about Pakistani migrant workers

In Squid Game, reportedly the most popular Netflix series of all time, the characters are almost all Korean, which is what you'd expect from a show produced in South Korea.

And then there's Ali Abdul, a Pakistani migrant worker in South Korea whose boss hasn't paid him for months. Don't ask how he's able to afford rent and food for himself and his wife and infant child, who live with him. Because the show doesn't explain!

So Abdul makes a drastic decision. He joins a secret, high-stakes competition called Squid Game.

The character Ali Abdul (portrayed by actor Anupam Tripathi) is a Pakistani migrant worker in South Korea whose boss hasn't paid him in months. Ali joins a secret competition called Squid Game to earn money for his family.
Noh Juhan / Netflix
The character Ali Abdul (portrayed by actor Anupam Tripathi) is a Pakistani migrant worker in South Korea whose boss hasn't paid him in months. Ali joins a secret competition called Squid Game to earn money for his family.

In order to win the multimillion dollar prize, Ali must compete against 455 other players — all desperate for cash — in six rounds of children's games. Those who can't make it to the next round face ... spoiler alert! ... are eliminated. Which means they are shot to death.

While this deadly competition is clearly a work of fiction, there's nothing fictional about Ali Abdul. Pakistan is one of many low-resource countries whose citizens travel to richer countries for jobs. So we wanted to know: Does the show offer a realistic depiction of Pakistani migrant workers?

There's no shortage of opinions. Squid Game is currently the No. 1 TV show in Pakistan, according to the entertainment tracking service Flix Patrol. We asked Pakistanis around the world to weigh in on the character of Ali — and the casting of an Indian actor Anupam Tripathi in the role.

Warning: There are spoilers ahead! You might want to watch the 9 episodes before reading further.

Ali's migrant life seems realistic – to a point

"Some of the issues faced by Ali Abdul appear to be typical" of a low-skilled migrant worker, says Noor Pamiri, a Pakistani immigrant based in New York who works for an organization that serves immigrants and refugees, mostly from South Asia and the Middle East. Ali faces labor exploitation and discrimination and seems to be stuck in a cycle of poverty "despite his hard work and abilities."

One of those abilities, adds Pamiri, is that Ali speaks fluent Korean and knows the culture, "showing that he has spent considerable time in South Korea."

What's less realistic, he adds, is that Ali's wife and child live with him in a small apartment in South Korea. "It's not typical for struggling immigrant workers to bring their families with them" when they go abroad, says Pamiri.

Ali's concern for his family is rooted in Pakistani values

What Pakistani journalist Absa Komal finds interesting about the show is that it "brings to light the South Asian culture where family obligation, loyalty and obedience toward family is of utmost importance," she says.

But that mindset does have its challenges, she adds. In many cases, men in South Asia are expected to bear the burden of providing for the whole family – including extended family members such as siblings to close relatives.

That Ali was willing to possibly sacrifice his own life to support his wife and child "stems from those values," she adds. "He ended up on the game because family is beyond everything."

Ali's obedient personality may be a matter of survival

Some Squid Game fans on Twitter have noted how deferential and subservient Ali is on the show. He bows several times when talking to the South Korean character Cho Sang-woo, a disgraced banker and a fellow Squid Game competitor, calls him "sir" and thanks him profusely for lending him bus fare.

Pakistani TV host Zarrar Khuhro says there might be a valid reason behind it. South Korea is a "land that prizes racial homogeneity" — and Ali may just be trying to avoid trouble by being respectful and trying to fit in with Korean customs and norms. "He is a stranger in a strange land, is illegal and thus easily exploited," says Khuhro.

But in later episodes, Ali shows his power says Khuhro. "Ali's initial servility is undercut when he confronts his manager and demands" the salary owed to him. And in a game of tug-of-war, "we see the show give him his due when he takes his place as the literal and symbolic anchor of the team."

For the most part, Khuhro says he is "very much Team Ali" — but he does have one quibble: "his name should be Abdul Ali and not Ali Abdul!"

Ali seems a little too naïve

One thing that rubbed viewers the wrong way was that Ali came off a bit clueless, especially in the marble game, says Lalah Rukh Malik, the Pakistani, U.K.-based founder of the organization Science Fuse.

Ali was unable to "sense the danger" of his situation, she adds — he was too trusting of Sang-woo and was easily tricked by him. It also seemed to take Ali a moment to register the meaning of the Korean words for "odd" and "even" after Sang-woo explained it to him.

"In the game he is shown as someone less intelligent," says Malik. But the reality is that it takes a lot of smarts to be a migrant worker. "This Pakistani character has seen many struggles in his life, yet he figured things out to come to Korea with his family."

That the Pakistani character was shown as "less intelligent" than the other characters "seemed racist to me," she adds.

Mixed reviews on casting

The idea of an Indian actor playing the role of Pakistani migrant did not sit well with Pakistani actor Ahmed Ali Butt. He criticized Squid Game producers for this casting choice.

Butt expressed his displeasure through a story post on his Instagram, "It's so frustrating to see Pakistani characters in big TV series being played by Indian actors. Why can't these productions cast original Pakistani actors for such roles? Same goes for films. If you're making a film and it's about a Pakistani city, why is it always cheated somewhere else? We really need to make progressive film policies so international filmmakers can use actual locations and talent from our country rather than cheap substitutes."

But Ali Gul Pir, a comedian based in Pakistan, disagrees: "Our country and our industry is so small as compared to India so it makes sense to choose an Indian actor to play the role as besides physical appearance, he also speaks fluent Korean which was of course one of the prime requirements for casting. He did a complete justice to the character."

Benazir Samad is an international multimedia journalist at Voice of America in Washington, D.C. She tweets @benazirmirsamad.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Benazir Samad