Review: ‘Spelling the Dream,’ starring Akash Vikoti, Shourav Dasari, Ashrita Gandhari, Tejas Muthusamy, Fareed Zakaria and Sanjay Gupta

June 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bharat Gandhari, Ashrita Gandhari and Mutha Gandhari in “Spelling the Dream” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Spelling the Dream”

Directed by Sam Rega

Culture Representation: Taking place in various cities in the U.S. and India, the documentary “Spelling the Dream” interviews mostly Indians and Indian Americans and some white Americans about why contestants of Indian descent have excelled at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee and other U.S. spelling contest.

Culture Clash: Indian-heritage winners of these spelling bees sometimes face racist backlash from people who think white people should be winning these contests.

Culture Audience: “Spelling the Dream” will appeal to people who like inspiring documentaries that show the power of hard work, loving family support and the thirst for knowledge.

Shourav Dasari (center) in “Spelling the Dream” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

If you’ve ever wondered why so many children of Indian heritage excel in U.S. spelling bees, even though people of Indian heritage are only 1% of the U.S. population, the documentary “Spelling the Dream” explains it all in an entertaining and informative way. Adeptly directed by Sam Rega, “Spelling the Dream” is more than a behind-the-scenes look at these spelling bees and some of the contestants. The film also has a lot to say about how the work ethic that goes into preparing for these contests is a reflection of how several Indian immigrant families feel about their cultural pride and the American Dream.

“Spelling the Dream” (formerly titled “Breaking the Bee”) opens with some statistics about Indian-heritage winners of the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, which launched in 1925 and is held in Washington, D.C. The vast majority of the winners since 1999 have been of Indian heritage, including consecutive Indian-heritage winners from 2008 to 2018. In the year 2019, there was a rare eight-way tie: seven of the eight winners were of Indian heritage, while the other winner was white.

Although most of the Scripps spelling bee winners have been U.S. residents, contestants who live outside the U.S. are allowed to enter the contest if they’ve won a qualifying regional spelling bee. As for the age limit, contestants must be no older than 14 on August 31 in the year before the contest, and they can’t be past the eighth grade by February 1 in the year of the competition. The Scripps spelling bee is usually held every May, but the event was cancelled in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The only other years that the Scripps spelling bee was previously cancelled were in 1943, 1944 and 1945, because of World War II.

“Spelling the Dream” interviews some previous Scripps National Spelling Bee winners (Indian and white), as well as spelling bee officials and several Indian Americans in the media and academia. The documentary also follows four kids in the quest to be the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion of 2017:

  • Akash Vikoti, a precocious and extroverted 6-year-old from Rockville, Maryland, who began spelling at the age of 2.
  • Ashrita Gandhari, a pragmatic and overachieving 10-year-old from South Andover, Maryland, who began spelling at the age of 5.
  • Shourav Dasari, a confident and analytical 14-year-old from Pearland, Texas, who’s been spelling since the age of 7.
  • Tejas Muthusamy, a sensitive and curious 14-year-old from Glen Allen, Virginia, who’s been spelling since the age of 7.

All of these contestants come from two-parent households with parents who immigrated to the U.S. from India. All of the parents, as well some of the kids’ siblings and extended family members, are interviewed in the documentary. The extended family members who are India say that even though they live far away, they’re still heavily involved in helping train these kids to become spelling bee champs. This family culture of having several relatives as part of the educational process (instead of leaving the work to schoolteachers or paid tutors) seems to make a big difference in the final results, according to several experts interviewed for the documentary.

CNN host Fareed Zakaria says, “One of the myths that people have about Indian Americans and their success is that it’s somehow genetic and even ethnic.” He believes that the high percentage of U.S. spelling bee champs are of Indian heritage because the winners “are drawn from Indians who are very adventurous, who decided to take advantage of the relaxation of the immigration rules of 1965.”

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed into federal law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, abolished the National Origins Formula, which allowed immigrants into the United States based on their national origin. Instead, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 aimed to approve immigration based on merit, thereby opening up more immigration to non-white people from other countries.

This merit-based policy “stopped the relatively racist quotas on who could emigrate from where in other parts of the world,” says Amherst College sociologist/author Pawan Dhingra. The result was that highly educated Indian people were approved for immigration to the United States. Hari Kondabolu, an Indian American comedian, adds: “They picked the people who were the most educated who add a very clear monetary value and serve a very clear purpose for America and its economy.”

Although it’s not mentioned in the documentary, Indian immigrants also benefited from the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. This movement began the legal dismantling of racial segregation in public schools and other aspects of American life, where racial segregation usually put Indians in the same category as black people. Desegregation increased the possibility of people of color and white people having the same access to education. Therefore, descendants of Indian immigrants in the 1960s and beyond had the ability to get better educations in the U.S. than Indians (and other people of color) could get in the U.S. before the 1960s.

“Spelling the Dream” also mentions that the upward mobility of Indians in the U.S. was considerably boosted by the tech boom that began in the 1980s. And several of the documentary’s pundits also point to the fact that it’s common for Indians to be multilingual. Indian immigrants in the U.S. usually have the benefit of already knowing English before they arrive in America, because the United Kingdom’s colonization of India made learning the English language an ingrained part of the Indian educational system. All of these factors have converged to create a Indian culture where spelling bees are a source of ethnic pride, because Indians do so well in these contests.

Dr. Balu Natarajan, who was the first Indian American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1985, is a perfect example. In the documentary, he says his immigrant parents came to the U.S. for opportunities. And in his family, “there was an emphasis on language.” Natarajan also says that he “didn’t recognize the magnitude” of being the first Indian American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, until “decades later … While I never pretended it was a big deal, other people informed me that it was a big deal to them.”

Srinivas Ayyagari, who a third-place Scripps National Spelling Bee contestant in 1992 and 1994, remembers that contestants of Indian heritage were still a minority in the spelling bee in the years that he competed. What happened to significantly increase the participation of Indian-heritage contestants? A few things, according to the documentary.

Scripps National Spelling Bee executive director Paige Kimble (who was the spelling bee’s champ in 1981) says the biggest game changer for the event was when ESPN began televising the contest in 1994. The spelling bee then had an international audience who could see it on TV, which motivated more people from Indian communities to enter the contest when they saw how many Indian-heritage contestants were ranking high or winning in the spelling bee.

The other significant factor is that a cottage industry sprang up for spelling bees that specifically cater to contestants of Indian heritage. South Asian Spelling Bee and North South Foundation Spelling Bee are named as the two most prominent. Northwestern University anthropologist/author Shalini Shankar comments that these two spelling bees are part of the “minor-league circuit,” but that “you see these kids hone their craft to a level that you didn’t otherwise see before that.”

However, several former and aspiring Scripps National Spelling Bee champs interviewed say that there’s no shortcut to success. By the time contestants reach the level of being in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, they’ve trained for years. And it’s almost always under the guidance of their parents, who devote hundreds of hours to educating and supporting their children in this process.

Several of the people interviewed liken the Scripps National Spelling Bee to being the Olympics for Indian people. In a world where other ethnicities tend to dominate most other contests, Indians have found a source of ethnic and cultural pride in a contest where Indians have excelled for the past several years. It’s why so many Indian families are willing to go through the sacrifices to give their kids the competitive edge.

Of the four contestants profiled in “Spelling the Dream,” Shourav Dasari and his parents have the most elaborate training method. Bharat Dasari (Shourav’s father) shows how they compiled a massive spreadsheet of words from the dictionary, with cross-references, definitions and language origins. The documentary filmed Shourav in his last eligible year to be a Scripps National Spelling Bee contestant, which is why Bharat said he felt comfortable enough to show their “trade secret.”

Many Indian families have more than one child per family who’s involved in spelling bees. Sibling rivalry is briefly mentioned in an interview Shourav’s sister Shoba, who is two years older than he is. She says that although she and Shourav started out as equals in spelling talent, he eventually surpassed her. The general consensus from the siblings of the “spelling stars” in each family is that the parents and the “star” sibling make a difference in whether or not the overshadowed sibling feels included or left out. Siblings who feel included are less likely to be jealous.

The parents interviewed in the documentary deny being pushy stage parents. They say that although they got their children involved in spelling bees from an early age, the children only continue if they really want to and genuinely enjoy it. Several of the parents are shown telling their contestant kids that they will be proud of them no matter how far they go in the competition, and they’ve clearly taught them how to handle defeat with grace. And all of the contestants who were profiled in this documentary have other extracurricular interests, such as playing tennis, dancing or playing piano.

Racism is also discussed in the film, which includes screen shots of several social-media comments expressing hatred and resentment that so many winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee are of Indian heritage. Even though most of the winners are American citizens, there are racists who still want to say that these winners are not really American.

Shankar says that American pride is “still coded in whiteness,” and that non-white Americans still have to deal with racist and incorrect perceptions that they’re not “real” Americans simply because of the color of their skin. However, the documentary doesn’t really explore deeper how any racism affects these contestants on an individual level. But the overall end results speak for themselves: Indian-heritage contestants continue to thrive in spelling bees.

The 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary “Spellbound” (which followed eight contestants in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee) is mentioned as a beloved movie that inspired many past and present contestants and their families. And, of course, much like “Spellbound,” a great deal of “Spelling the Dream” consists of footage showing how the profiled contestants go from winning their regional contests to how they fared in their journeys to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The intriguing and often suspenseful scenes of the contestants on stage (shown in quick montages) are among the highlights of the film.

Other talking heads interviewed in “Spelling the Dream” include ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi; Scripps National Spelling Bee 1991 winner Nupur Lala; Hexco Academic co-founder Valerie Browning; and Jacques Bailly, the Scripps National Spelling Bee champ of 1981 who is now the event’s pronouncer. Although getting to the big leagues of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is a very competitive and grueling process, Bailly says that for most of the contestants, they find out during the process that it can be less about the competition and more about “a celebration of learning.”

Netflix premiered “Spelling the Dream” on June 3, 2020.

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