- When I was a young “Harry Potter” fan in India, the Patils meant so much to me.
- Their hideous on-screen Yule Ball outfits, however, were a wasted opportunity for representation.
- The Patils were robbed of their identities, illustrating Western media’s larger diversity issue.
My decade-old copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” still looks new, except for the tiny dog-ear in chapter seven on a page I revisited time and time again.
On that folded page, we readers witness our first Sorting Hat ceremony and meet “a pair of twin girls, ‘Patil’ and ‘Patil.'”
Even though I had little more than a last name, I was immediately invested in their character development and what would come next for them.
Unfortunately, J.K. Rowling didn’t give them growth, and the movies didn’t provide them with opportunities to progress either. Really, the movies did these twins dirtier than I could’ve imagined.
As a young Indian Potterhead, I instantly identified with Parvati and Padma
It was because of my culture that I had such a big response to the introduction of minor characters who, really, would have no important role in the series.
Patil is a common family name in India, where I live. When I first read “Sorcerer’s Stone,” India’s president — the first and only woman to hold that office — was Pratibha Patil, a name that could’ve been a good choice for a third sister if the Patils were triplets.
I was used to the name in my regular life, but seeing it in the Wizarding World was something else entirely. “Harry Potter” wasn’t just a series of books; it was a phenomenon and a watershed moment for young-adult fiction.
It was also overwhelmingly British, with characters who were either clearly stated or implied to be Caucasian, people who had names nobody around me had, and kids who had blond and red hair — a spectrum absent from our rainbow here in India.
In this unfamiliar landscape, the presence of the Patils became my own personal connection to the world of magic.
As a young Indian girl, I was sure the twins would probably dress like me, eat like me, and even live with a family like mine.
But the Patils had disappointing character arcs — if you can even call them that — and were immediately shoved to the side
The Patils’ character arcs seemed promising in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
We see Parvati more closely since she is a Gryffindor like the leads Harry, Ron, and Hermione. She gets as much dialogue as some other supporting characters. In a pivotal scene, we see her standing up for Neville Longbottom, who was being bullied by Draco Malfoy, thus embodying the “daring, nerve, and chivalry” that sets Gryffindors apart from the rest.
Slowly, however, I noticed the Patil sisters fading away.
We see the sisters occasionally in the first three books in the Gryffindor common room, at Quidditch matches, and in divination class. Then we see only glimpses of them as members of Dumbledore’s Army in the fifth book, exactly four lines of dialogue in the sixth book, and a couple of mentions in the final book’s Battle of Hogwarts.
The books don’t even leave us with a definite answer as to whether they survive the battle.
The girls’ big moment is also the series’ biggest waste of an opportunity to showcase Indian culture
In the fourth book, Parvati and Padma’s role as Harry and Ron’s dates to the Yule Ball is the peak of their character progress — I refuse to call it development because they do not evolve beyond one dimension.
For my teenage self, it was immensely reassuring to know that Indian girls were fully capable of being found worthy by the Chosen One and his faithful friend. It helps that that books describe the situation in a fluffy, rom-com manner and paint a lovely picture of the outfits they wore to the ball:
“Parvati … looked very pretty indeed, in robes of shocking pink, with her long dark plait braided with gold, and gold bracelets glimmering at her wrists …
“‘Hi,’ said Padma, who was looking just as pretty as Parvati in robes of bright turquoise.”
Having read this and imagined many versions of what their outfits might be, I was excited for the film version of the sequence.
As soon as I saw Parvati and Padma, I had a strong suspicion the costume designers neither were Indian nor consulted with anyone who was.
The girls wore garish pink-and-orange lehengas, a traditional Indian ethnic costume that consists of a floor-length skirt, a matching top, and, occasionally, a scarf called the dupatta. It’s worn to celebrations, formal events, and festivals.
Most important, lehengas are tough to get wrong — they are naturally graceful, come in a variety of designs, and are often sold in sets, which takes the brainwork out of matching the outfit. Many Indian designers exclusively make lehengas, giving wearers a plethora of options.
It takes a lot of work to make a lehenga look bad. And yet, the film managed to do it, with candy-colored outfits that did not fit, weren’t accessorized properly, and didn’t even match the descriptions in the book.
Even worse, it wasn’t necessary to have the twins wear Indian clothes in the first place — the book mentioned only “robes.” If the filmmakers were trying to pay homage to the sisters’ heritage, they wasted a wonderful opportunity to showcase the sisters’ cultural background.
The Patils aren’t the first Indian characters to be robbed of their identities
Western media has a representation problem that goes beyond “Harry Potter.”
For a country with an approximately 14% minority population, the UK has a massive representation problem — which also exists in the US and other Western countries — that excludes people of color from art.
Western media’s representation of Indian characters has often been stereotypical, lazy, and borderline offensive — one need look no further than Apu from “The Simpsons” and Raj from “The Big Bang Theory.” This fetishization of the exotic takes two forms, with characters either used for tokenistic diversity or made the butt of jokes.
But Parvati and Padma Patil are neither — their ethnic origins are never really proclaimed or highlighted enough to merit accusations of tokenism, and they are never used for the punch line.
Instead, they represent untapped potential and unrealized opportunities. Rowling didn’t seem to understand the importance of these characters to people like me — perhaps if she had, we’d have a well-researched portrayal of two Indian girls.
As for the film, it required just a little hard work to make sure the only tangible on-screen visualization of the twins’ heritage was not a twisted, neon, gimmicky version of what is really a vivid and colorful culture.
As I grew up, my disappointment with the treatment of the Patils has become my own case study
Parvati and Padma Patil are now two of my favorite characters for a different reason.
They now remind me of the importance of representation and varied perspectives. They drive me to research thoroughly and put in as much effort as is required for accurate and nuanced descriptions. They remind me of the impact and importance that literature and characters we relate to can have on our perception of art.
And, of course, the sisters will always be a reminder for me to never wear neon pink and bright orange together — a fashion faux pas that should only be made once in history.