If you tuned in to the finals of last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, broadcast in prime time on ESPN, you would have seen 15 young students remaining in the competition—and 13 of them were Indian American.
And at the end of 36 grueling rounds, Ananya Vinay, a sixth-grade girl from Fresno, California, won it all, continuing the 10-year streak of Indian American champions. Since 1999, when Nupur Lala won the Bee with a performance captured in the documentary Spellbound, Indian Americans have been victorious in all but four years.
How have kids of Indian descent managed to dominate the National Spelling Bee so thoroughly? That’s a question tackled by an enlightening new documentary, Breaking the Bee, which has its New York City premiere on Saturday at the New York Indian Film Festival. The film follows the paths of four young spellers trying to make it through the increasingly competitive field during the 2017 Bee season. In doing so, it entertainingly shines a spotlight on how the Indian American community has fostered a sports dynasty that the comedian Hari Kondabolu likens to the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys. As Kondabolu says in the film, “Indian American kids and spelling: We’re in that!”
The director, Sam Rega, told me that he was fascinated by how Indian Americans, who represent about one percent of the national population, have been able to rack up victory after victory in the Bee over the past two decades. His pursuit led him to investigate U.S. immigration history, tracing back the influx of highly educated professionals from the subcontinent to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed the old racist quota system. Rega also delved into the “minor-league circuit” that has become the proving ground for so many of the top spellers in recent years: the North South Foundation Spelling Bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee.
When the North South Foundation was founded in the late 1980s, its goal was to raise money among Indian Americans for scholarships to go to underprivileged children back in India. But starting in 1993, when the group was looking for ways to promote education in the U.S. as well, it hit upon holding a spelling bee. “It just took on a life of its own,” Rega said, with the South Asian Spelling Bee joining as an alternative competition in 2008. And seeing Indian American kids excelling on national television (ESPN has been broadcasting the final rounds since 1994) has only amped up the enthusiasm.
Parents in the community have become heavily invested in the competitions, seeking out resources that could help their children succeed and make it to the Scripps stage. But among kids and parents alike, the atmosphere is not as cutthroat as you might think. The North South Foundation’s bee, for instance, is an all-volunteer effort, so the parents all pitch in—as depicted in the film, there’s a great deal of camaraderie and mutual support. “They all want to see each other succeed,” Rega said, adding that they see it as not so much a contest pitting speller against speller, but as an individual sport competing against the dictionary.
That dictionary is the weighty Webster’s Third New International, Unabridged, with nearly half a million words that the students can be quizzed on. Much of the preparation for the Bee involves wrangling this beast of a lexicon, finding the most efficient ways to commit to memory the roots of English word formation. As the four children featured in Breaking the Bee illustrate, each family finds its own way to take on that gargantuan task, and Rega has wisely chosen to spend much of the film’s time in taking viewers behind the scenes to those quiet familial moments.
Shourav Dasari of Houston, Texas, for instance, is shown plowing through an immense spreadsheet of dictionary entries, taking only a second or two to check the pronunciation of each word before typing the spelling with feverish speed. Ashrita Gandhari of North Andover, Massachusetts, takes a more visual approach: We see her mother drawing on a whiteboard and asking Ashrita and her younger sister to identify the classical roots for each part of the human head. (The Latin word for “cheek” is bucca, in case you were wondering.)
Since studying for the Bee is such a family affair, it’s not surprising that younger siblings get hooked on competitive spelling at an early age as they watch their brothers and sisters succeed. Many of the Indian American children who become top competitors have been immersed in this spelling culture from a very early age, thanks in large part to a healthy dose of sibling rivalry.
Akash Vukoti of San Angelo, Texas, for instance, followed in the footsteps of his sister Amrita, but he quickly transformed into a star in his own right at the tender of age of 6—becoming the first-ever first grader to qualify for the National Spelling Bee in 2016. Akash’s infectious ebullience lights up the screen in Breaking the Bee—he’s quite a ham (previously seen charming Steve Harvey on NBC’s Little Big Shots). Far more cool, calm, and collected is Tejas Muthusamy of Glen Allen, Virginia, who hit upon meditation as a way to stay relaxed in the midst of the scrum of the Bee.
The individual stories told in the documentary go a long way to counteract the stereotype that has sprung up about Indian American spellers since they began commanding the higher echelons of the Bee: that they’re just a bunch of soulless automatons, forced by domineering parents to memorize long lists of words instead of having fun like regular kids. The children featured are playful, well-rounded, and above all, genuinely enthusiastic about competing—if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be able to excel.
The film isn’t shy about grappling with the pernicious backlash against Indian American spellers in recent years, as racist comments pop up on social media every year during ESPN’s broadcast of the Bee finals. Shalini Shankar, a linguistic anthropologist at Northwestern University who is writing a book about the competitive culture of spelling bees, observes that because the Scripps Bee is seen as a “quintessentially American contest,” it brings to the surface social anxieties about who gets to be identified as “legitimately American”—a category that for many, she notes, is still “coded by whiteness.”
How the spelling bee plays into ideas of Americanness is clearly on the minds of prominent Indian Americans interviewed for the documentary, such as CNN’s Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria—as well as Kondabolu, whose own documentary The Problem With Apu has opened up a national discussion about the impact of South Asian stereotypes, through the lens of the character Apu on The Simpsons. Like The Problem With Apu, Breaking the Bee is a welcome antidote to the narrow-minded xenophobia that South Asian Americans continue to encounter in this country. Though the film still is on the festival circuit, Rega is working on a distribution deal with streaming services to bring it to a wider audience. In the meantime, if you click on ESPN at the end of the month to watch this year’s Scripps finals, spare a moment to marvel at how Indian American kids—with the support of their families and wider communities—have turned spelling bees into their own Olympic events.
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