It is the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals, the most prestigious spelling bee in the US — there are over a million viewers on ESPN, hopes are high and the adrenaline’s coursing through everyone’s veins. And on the dais stand a few teenagers, who have toughed it out since they were around four, dealing with the mounting pressure as they recite each letter of words with over 20 alphabets. It is daunting, especially the thought of cashing in decades worth of practice over a few days, many with no do-overs. And as a final badge of honour for us, most of those that have held the winning trophy are Indian-Americans, precisely 27 out of 35.
This is a difficult topic to execute. Imagine a cricket match with twelve runs left in the final over, or a penalty shootout of your home team in football — blood pressure is off the charts, everyone’s unabashedly swearing, and then there’s the sheer (unspeakable) horror of a possible loss. But Spelling the Dream, a Netflix documentary, manages to make at least 70% of this tangible, especially in the final half-hour, a respectable feat for a niche competition.
Most of the documentary spends time leading up to the final competition. The students open up about their preparations and practice rituals and all of them are of Indian origin, of course. Everyone has their own — one uses a family-secret word database, another surfs across Wikipedia learning obscure words, and one child keeps a rock with him for good luck. From statistical to spiritual, we see it all. But these beats are plain vanilla, what you’d expect from a documentary feature oftentimes. It doesn’t take these peculiarities far enough and neither does it offer any running commentaries about them — they are presumedly the routine practices of an Indian Scripps bee aspirant. But there is a bond to share with these endearing kids. Some have been at it since they were two and some inspired seeing other Indians succeed in the past. There is a real sense of community here and not the kind that would frustratingly alienate non-Indians, non-Americans.
So, as the hour strikes and once you’ve shared a certain kinship with them, you feel that dread set in. Who, out of these preternaturally smart children, will win?
Director Sam Rega steers the feature ahead with a more sociological discussion — the racist undertones of the competition’s audience and the cultural advantage Indians may possess over here. There’s no dissonance in Rega’s shifting of narratives, from the personal to political. It is seamlessly carried out, in a faint manner, however. While they introduce the different families supporting their children, hailing from Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and numerous other states, Rega blends in the sociocultural history of the spelling bee. All in a way that provides just enough information to prevent the documentary from turning into a dry academic seminar.
And just as you feel the desi pride of success, seeing the children disarm that racism with tenacity and perseverance, Rega takes everything up a notch and plays out, what they call, the ‘Indian Super Bowl.’ It is a long wait until the final Scripps bee competition as most of the feature is spent on introducing and building up the four contestants. So, as the hour strikes and once you’ve shared a certain kinship with them, you feel that dread set in. Who, out of these preternaturally smart children, will win? That is, of course, if like me, this is your first outing to a spelling bee. There is your standard hyperventilation, anxiety, and disappointment. It plays out like a smooth sports game and once it’s all over, you almost pay no heed to the documentary’s hitches here and there. For a quick endorphin hit as well as some insight into the lives of Indian-American households, this documentary does a solid job.
Spelling the Dream is available on Netflix.