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Spelling The Dream: Netflix docu film on desi success at spelling bee is gripping but limited

Of the last 31 champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the biggest such contest in the US, 26 have been Indian-Americans.

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Picture a group of children, aged anywhere between seven and 14, brows furrowed, faces screwed up in concentration, carefully spelling out loud, to an audience, words like promyshlennik, scolecomorphidae, chryselephantine, durchkomponiert and others that you have never heard and will never use in your life.

This hardly sounds like a thrilling event that will have you at the edge of your seat, biting your nails, gripping your head in your hands if they get one letter wrong or whooping with joy when they don’t.

But that is precisely what happens while watching Spelling The Dream. Directed by Sam Rega, Netflix’s new documentary dives into a phenomenon that is fascinating in its scope — the domination of Indian-born American children at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, arguably the most famous and prestigious spelling competition in the world.

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Scripps National Spelling Bee aka the ‘Indian Super Bowl’

The movie begins with footage from the 2019 edition of the spelling bee, where, in a historic final, eight young spellers were declared co-champions. Seven of them were Indian-origin. Indian-Americans represent just 1 per cent of the population of the US, we are told, yet they have won the Bee for the last 12 years in a row. In fact, of the last 31 Bee champions, 26 were Indian-American. Just what explains this phenomenon? That is what the movie, over a neat 1 hour and 22 minutes, tries to find an answer to.

Spelling The Dream follows the stories of four ace spellers. There’s seven-year-old Akash Vukoti in San Angelo, Texas, the first first-grader to enter the Holy Grail of spelling contests, fellow Texan Shourav Dasari, 14, whose friends call him the Michael Jordan of spelling, Ashrita Gandhahari in Massachussetts, who is 10 and a compulsive word researcher, and Tejas Muthusamy in Richmond, Virginia, whose extended family in Bengaluru keenly follows his spelling progress and holds him up as an example to his cousins.

The movie weaves together interviews with these kids and their families, footage of past spelling bees as well as insights from Indian-American comic Hari Kondabolu, journalist and sociopolitical commentator Fareed Zakaria and a host of sociologists as well as representatives from Scripps and ESPN, on which the event is aired, to try to understand the unique domination of Indian-born students at what they routinely call a very American event.

While some of them point to the fact that many Indians are, practically from birth, bilingual or trilingual, that cannot be the only answer as the same can be said of people from a number of other countries.

Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist, recalls former US President Lyndon Johnson’s relaxation of the country’s immigration rules in the 1960s and explains how that opened the doors for waves of talented, educated Indians to come to the US and make a new life for themselves, notably in medicine and then in IT.

Kondabolu takes this theme further and adds that it is not some magical, mythical talent that enables Indians to win the spelling trophy every year. It’s the sheer hard work that got many Indians to the US in search of better opportunities decades ago, combined with their desire to ensure that their children get and make use of every opportunity so that they can have better lives. Plus, he adds, India was colonised by the British, and English has been around for a long enough time.

Balu Natarajan, the very first Indian to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, back in 1985, recalls that for years after, he had no idea what a big deal it was and what a life-changing moment it was — not for him, but for the Indian community in America. It was as if his victory had made them realise that this was something they, too, could be good at, could win at.

And the decision to broadcast the Spelling Bee on ESPN, back in 1994, changed the face of the event. Here was an event that was now not just written about in the papers, but televised on a sports channel, and it was an event that Indians owned. It is, as Kondabolu puts it, “the Indian Super Bowl”.

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Feel-good, but limited

With the 2017 edition of the contest as its grand finale, the movie does feel like a sports drama — the hours and hours of intense prep, etymology and strategy condensed into minutes, the county and regional events, the tense music that builds up as the competition goes on, the heartbreak when your favourite kid messes up a word, the joy and relief when they get it right.

The question of parental pressure is, gratifyingly, dealt with well, and the movie does away with the stereotypical representation of Indian parents as ‘tiger parents’ who don’t see anything beyond trophies and grades. These parents are loving, physically affectionate and supportive, whether their child wins or loses.

But it is meant to be a deeper exploration of a sociocultural phenomenon, and that is where Spelling The Dream falters.

Beyond a point, the insights into said phenomenon start to sounds repetitive, and it might have been more compelling to delve more deeply into some of the genuinely interesting questions the film raises but doesn’t really dig into — notably on the children’s social lives and the racism they face.

Instead of pat, feel-good questions-and-answers, one wonders if actually shadowing these kids as they go about their school day, seeing their interactions with their friends and what they like to do in their free time might have provided for a more well-rounded documentary.

Ultimately, though, the movie is about the children, who are earnest, sweet and so, so deserving of support. Even though I found Akash a bit too precocious and cutesy, I cheered when he got a word right, and wept when he lost a round and wished all the remaining competitors luck. And when the winner of the 2017 Spelling Bee is announced, I dare you not to weep for joy. I won’t tell you who it is — but, well, you already know it’s an Indian.


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