By Neerja Deodhar Nov. 15, 2021
Harry Potter became a teen fascination in an India that generally did not read books. While he ticked some boxes in terms of literature, it’s the ones he didn’t that explain his appeal and popularity.
Two years ago, I was at lunch with an acquaintance, doing what I thought was considered “grown-up” — ordering a cocktail, eating sushi and paying for it all with my own money. An hour into our meal, this person sombrely took a break from eating to tell me that that was the day that Harry received his Hogwarts letter.
Two months ago, I was at a party where the attendees, all of whom were above the age of 25, introduced themselves by naming the Hogwarts houses we’d be part of (Gryffindor and Slytherin being the most preferred, surprise surprise!). The Potter fandom manifests itself in likely (merchandise, fanfiction, forums, destinations, conventions, tattoos) and unlikely (themed weddings and a funeral) ways, even dating app bios. Either way, Potter’s relevance, has for some reason, extended beyond the teen years it is clearly positioned to capture.
Either way, Potter’s relevance, has for some reason, extended beyond the teen years it is clearly positioned to capture.
Bios on dating apps, or rather the reaction to them, can sometimes be an accurate way to understand what is cool — and what isn’t. Every few months, someone will invariably tweet about how they’re sick of coming across endless profiles where users are more eager to profess their love for The Office or FRIENDS before they can actually say something about themselves. The complaint is that what these people watch or the characters they ‘stan’, effectively, become their personality. Maybe they’re a Brooklyn 99 fan, a Jake looking for an Amy. Maybe they want to honestly know if you thought Ross and Rachel were on a break. Or maybe modern dating is a vast, personality-sucking abyss and we’re all helplessly falling through it looking at the mirror for a clue.
In the league of shows and films overused to denote a personality, Harry Potter leads by some margin. Before I continue, I must confess that I wasn’t immune to the Harry Potter rage. I have memorised and sung this incredibly catchy song, my ex-boss and I have a running joke about employment and house elves being given socks, and I thoroughly enjoy watching this drag queen dressed as Voldemort, dancing to Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’. But that is where it ends for me.
If you grew up in the 2000s, it wasn’t possible to resist the attraction of this franchise: The films played on TV in the afternoons and evenings, in both English and regional languages, and your friends purchased the full box-set of books or borrowed them from the school library. If you weren’t part of the fandom already, you felt FOMO. And though other works of greater literary value may have existed at the time, once a story like this became a global sensation and earned the favour of cool nerds (especially white nerds), we Indians had to be part of it.
A lot of Indian shows dabbled in the sace of young adult fiction, like Hatim, Vicky & Vetaal, Shaka Laka Boom Boom and Sonpari, but Harry Potter had richer plot detailing and world-building which was novel and exotic to Indians. Not to mention it was created in a technically advanced landscape. Potter captured a demand for fantasy in a country where homegrown stories in the same genre simply weren’t as polished or fascinating, especially to those who lived in big cities and Tier 1 towns.
Potter also echoed certain familiarities – boarding school, relationship with teachers and teen friendship. The story was a canvas upon which you could project your own life and dreams. Like many YA novels of the time, it encouraged the kind of exceptionalism that millennials and Gen-Zs are now criticised for indulging in. It celebrated bravery in the face of evil as well as breaking rules for the greater good – who doesn’t like the break-free kind of heroism?
Potter is perfect for an Indian audience because of how sanitised it is, especially when you consider that it’s centered on teenagers.
As with any nerdy creation, Potter had a heady life off-screen and off books in the annals of rumour and fan theories, some of them encouraged by J. K. Rowling herself. Potter is perfect for an Indian audience because of how sanitised it is, especially when you consider that it’s centered on teenagers. I suppose your priorities in life can’t be your raging hormones when there’s death waiting at every corner. And though there are mentions of romance, they’re never spicy enough to upset the sanskari Indian parent.
Nostalgia has become a genre and consumable product in itself, but it would be wrong to say that the cult of Harry Potter rests on its nostalgic value alone. Even to a certain type of reader, it’s a sexually innocent, and yet politically charged world of myth and mystery. It demands little and delivers more.
Having Potter-themed weddings as adults means that fans continue to live in the Potterverse long after their teenage years. Maybe it’s difficult to let go of a piece of pop culture that defined your childhood, maybe you don’t want to, despite being exposed to other books and films. So you engage in long debates about the need to separate the art from the artist in the face of Rowling’s raging transphobia. You say that we should desist from literary criticism and debates about the lack of racial diversity, instead letting people enjoy things. Because life can only be as simple as Potter makes it out to be, right.
Neerja Deodhar writes about art and culture when she isn't looking up pasta recipes. She tweets at @neerjadeodhar and runs the newsletter 'Lunch Club for Three'.