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