Spelling the Dream Documentary Review: A charming spell
This charming yet grounding Netflix documentary about the dominance of Indian Americans in the nation-wide Spelling Bees is an attempt to understand the why
If one were to rattle off names of famous sports in the USA, one would likely go, "Baseball, American football, basketball, golf." Thanks to television, these sports reach the homes of millions of people worldwide. That's why someone sitting in a remote corner of India can be found sporting a Chicago Bulls jersey. It is due to a similar television popularity that one of the kids in Spelling The Dream calls his friend Shourav, the Michael Jordan of the spelling world.
Cast: Akash Vukoti, Shourav Dasari, Ashritha Gandhahari, Tejas Muthuswamy
Director: Sam Rega
Streaming on: Netflix
This Netflix documentary about the dominance of Indian Americans in the nation-wide Spelling Bees is an attempt to understand the why. It talks about how this has become a matter of pride among the Indian diaspora; about success and recognition. But mostly, it talks about how this is essentially about “a kid versus a dictionary of a half a million words.”
Spelling the Dream also talks about the issues faced by the community that has provided 26 out of the last 31 winners. They face trolling and xenophobic hatred. The parents are called “Tiger parents.” Are the parents forcing their kids, sometimes as young as 2 or 3, into this world? But again, is this any different from parents sending their kids to swimming classes or basketball coaching? The documentary answers all this and much more in a sprightly way. It reminds us that this endeavour gives a generation of Indian Americans the opportunity to break stereotypes and find a sense of belonging.
Spelling the Dream talks about how these kids are seen as an inspiration to not just their extended families back in India but also within their family. The documentary also addresses the volatile equations that can stem from inspirations turning into competitions. Parents are forced to spend more time with the ‘achiever’. Does it leave their other children, if any, feel a bit left out, or even jealous? Spelling prodigy Akash Vukoti’s sister puts it succinctly. “He doesn’t make me feel left out. So, I’m not jealous. I’m glad.”
These kids, who are achieving so much on such a big stage, seem too stoic when winning. When someone who is hardly seven is so poised on stage after misspelling a word, and wishes the best to his fellow competitors, it almost seems too good to be true. But once off stage and within the safe confines of their parents’ arms, the kids are an inconsolable mess. If the youngest spellers cry their hearts out, the slightly older ones aren’t crying but are visibly shattered. They need that parent to tell them, “Kavala padaadha kanna (Don’t worry), it is okay.”
That was a true 'aha' moment for me. One might have a spelling database in place, a fluent command over multiple languages, good luck charms, or boast of multiple other talents, even while poring over dictionaries. But at the end of the day, even if you can spell the word ‘humuhumunukunukuapua'a’ without batting an eyelid, these spelling bees are all about perhaps embracing the most Indian thing about Indians — Loving one's family. And for this reason, and the sensitivity shown in portraying this community, Spelling the Dream is a worthy watch.