MUMBAI — Some long documentaries need the length they have, others could do with brevity and sharp editing. The latter category often sees the purpose, however right or noble, being a tad diluted despite the fact that the interest level is quite high and the subject deserving.
In this latter category falls “Spelling The Dream,” very self-indulgently presented by director-co-writer and co-producer Sam Rega. Why do we say “self-indulgently?” Only because Rega is the editor as well and what I said earlier applies.
As an Indian based in India, I am naturally overwhelmed with pride that there was an unprecedented 8-way tie in the 2019 Scripps Spelling Bee, with seven of the eight winners being of Indian origin. My chest swelled when comedian Hari Kondabolu said towards the end, “The only way Indian American kids are losing the spelling bee is if they switch to Spanish next year — and then it’s still, like, 50-50.” When two American women substantiated this in principle as well, it was no small thing.
Here, there’s seven-year-old Akash Vukoti and Shourav Dasari, 14, both from Texas, Ashrita Gandhahari, 10 from Massachussetts, and Tejas Muthusamy, around 12, I think, from Virginia. There are smaller players (for this film) as well.
So, basically, the 82-minute documentary talks of Spelling Bees, big in America, and how Indian kids of all ages and diverse origins (though significantly, many are South Indians!) have a mastery over them. That mastery has translated into a near-monopoly of Indian Americans for the past decade, and we see how it all silently, slowly and subtly started out in the mid-1990s.
Many Indians in the documentary opine why this is so, and the varied reasons include the kids’ childhood need to be multilingual (English, mother-tongue, even the “father-tongue” if different from mother-tongue!) and so on. How a plural identity actually creates this asset, apart from inborn dedication and hard work, is shown not only through inputs from the parents, but others involved as well, like a doctor of Indian origin.
There is also the proposed reason that they need to prove themselves, which does not make much sense to me but may apply to a few there, though I do not see why children should think that way, and, of course, the transparently wrong one (almost an allegation) of pushy parents (Remember “3 Idiots?” You can only excel if you have a natural flair, not if you are forced to do something).
Clearly, the most interesting and educative part of the film is how the kids give it their all, and how their parents selflessly guide them. It is very fascinating to know that an under-10 kid explains how easy it is to spell “Humuhumunukunukuapuaa” (Yes, that’s a word in the dictionary!). It is even more mind-boggling to know the depth of the study of these whizkids, as they ask at the competitions: “May I have the definition of the word?,” “Is there any alternate pronunciation?,” “What is the origin of the word?” (in terms of language, like Greek, Latin etc.) and how they study and grasp the complex rules (and lack of them!) in the most unique melting-pot in the whole world: the English language!
A grey area for me is the difference between Amercian and English spelling, like when American spellings eschew “o” before “u” and when they do not. Does the Spelling Bee tradition take that into account? As when “valour” is spelt “valor” in America, but in other cases, the “o” is maintained? That question, for me at least, goes unanswered.
Rega and Weller get to emotional terrain when we see the very human reactions of disappointments in the kids when they go wrong. I do wonder if such kids can get precocious, or become unduly arrogant or premature adults as they transcend the dictionary levels of an average English language teacher?
And in the final analysis, is this super-brilliant knowledge of words of any future use in life? Where, in short, will all this lead? After all, an overwhelmingly large proportion of careers have nothing to do with more than basic English as communication. So, is it all a fruitless exercise after the immense and near-impossible level of hard work?
At the end, let me narrate a personal experience. Under the Journalistic Student Exchange program, a close friend of mine went to U.K. for a year and someone came in his place. I was thinking of discussing the depravity English is facing in the digital era when I read his first article in India. All I can say is that it was the opposite qualitative extreme, in terms of language, grammar and substance, of “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Yes, that’s a word too, heard first in “The Sound Of Music” and seen in a contest here as well.
“Spelling The Dream?” Fine, but what after we wake up from it?
Written and produced by: Sam Rega & Chris Weller
Directed and edited by: Sam Rega