It’s hard to imagine how something as basic as a spelling bee competition – in which contestants are required to spell words of varying degrees of difficulty – can make for an entertaining documentary. But that’s where Sam Rega’s Spelling the Dream succeeds. Rega profiles a group of aspiring competitors of Indian descent preparing for this very American competition.
The film starts in 2019 at the 92nd Scripps National Spelling Bee, in which as many as 562 contestants participated. It was a significant year because eight children were declared co-champions after all of them lasted 20 rounds. Seven of the eight winners were of Indian descent. Among them was Saketh Sundar from Maryland, who is seen in the film sitting on stage with his hands folded in prayer as the judge announces the final round.
Back in 1983, there were only six Indians among 137 participants. The story of the Indian fascination with the National Spelling Bee starts in 1985, when Balu Natarajan became the first winner of Indian descent. Since 2008, Indian Americans have won the contest 12 years in a row.
The 83-minute film profiles four children from around America who are aspiring to become champion spellers. Rega includes interviews with the contestants, their siblings and parents, former champions, sociologists, anthropologists and prominent Indian-American commentators, including comedian Hari Kondabolu and Fareed Zakaria. It also has the voices of the participants’ families back in India who proudly follow and support the progress of their nieces/nephews/cousins long distance.
The competition becomes an entry point into the immigrant story, with first-generation Indian Americans keen to make the most of their opportunities. Inspired by previous Indian winners, and the association with leading sports channel ESPN, the competition offers overnight celebrity.
One of the children, Akash Vukoti from Texas, has been spelling since he was two. He was inducted into the American Mensa when he was three. He made his first appearance at the National Spelling Bee when he was six years old.
Seven-year-old Akash is entertaining as he shows off his incredible spelling skills with a touch of drama. His parents are clearly encouraging and perhaps even vicariously living out their own ambitions through his potential.
Shourav Dasari’s parents devised a code and keenly participate in their son’s preparations. Their system condensed the 475,000 words in the dictionary to around 125,000 words. His older sister Shobha was also a contestant.
There are go-to movies that Bee-contestants devour, among them Spellbound and Akeelah and the Bee. The fact that ESPN has been televising the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 1994, thereby categorising it as a sport, makes it all the more ironic. Because, as one talking head says, it’s a sport Indians excel at – an “Indian Super Bowl”. As a person observes, “The competition is not between this kid and that kid. The competition is between this kid and the dictionary of half a million words.”
There is a flipside. Rega touches on how a quintessentially American contest is inviting xenophobia as children of Indian origin maintain a winning streak. However, Spelling the Dream doesn’t dive deep into the complexities of the immigrant experience, the pressure to compete at a young age, or the nuances of integration. The documentary holds strong because the children are impressive and the competition is a window into a peculiar tradition that, quizzically, enjoys “sports” status.