Spelling The Dream movie review: How do you spell nuts?

Updated: May 30, 2020, 13:24 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Through Spelling The Dream, director Sam Rega attempts to answer this cultural question profiling a bunch of boys and girls and their families, collectively prepping for the 2017 Spelling Bee championship.

A still from Spelling The Dream
A still from Spelling The Dream

Spelling the dream
On: Netflix
Dir: Sam Rega
Genre: Documentary
Rating: pic

For desis in America, I guess, to 'bee' or not to bee is not the question — if you merely consider stats on the Scripps National Spelling Bee contest, that annually tests kids on their ability to memorise and spell difficult English words.

Indians represent one per cent of American population. They have won 12 spelling bee championships in a row; and 26 of the last 31 times. Besides, 25 per cent of contestants in this deeply American, toddler-to-teenaged tradition belong to the same community, with the country of origin, India, in common.

Back on Indian news, we have grown equally accustomed to a picture of a scrawny, bespectacled, desi kid, holding a trophy in the US year after year — in the same way that Sunny Leone annually topping Indian Google searches is a foregone result. No seriously; what's with desi kids and mastering English spellings?

Through Spelling The Dream, director Sam Rega attempts to answer this cultural question — profiling a bunch of boys and girls and their families, collectively prepping for the 2017 Spelling Bee championship. The higher elimination rounds of which look like they're being held in any other middle-school in Vashi, and not Washington DC. This is not a surprise given how many of them have been at it since age three and four — memorising every day, every week, running into years, before hitting national stage.

The Spelling Bee finals also hold a certain allure for the fact that they get televised on ESPN, the television Mecca of American/global sport. You can imagine the sort of street-cred this could earn a kid in class, who's otherwise deemed the studious, non-sports type. But you get on ESPN? Boom, that's just too cool for school!
So this ambition to make it to the Spelling Bee final 50 at least — if you've performed rather well all along — doesn't seem to be all about the desi dad pumping fist in the air, because his boy/girl decoded alphabets to a word nobody will ever use. Or for the desi mom to strut around at the next Diwali/Holi party. Because her brown child is brighter than the neighbour/relative's, since all of them competed for the same trophy, and the results have been spelt out.

No, that's the Board exams in middle-class India. For, everyone sat for the same paper. The kids on Spelling Bee are given different words to crack open before a live audience. Like any other sport/test, much depends on luck. Also, you're technically up against the dictionary, rather than other contestants.

What could be so scintillating about children spelling words that could merit broadcast on ESPN? Well, that's primarily the reason I watched this film. The contest within it is no different from watching a quiz, perhaps. And god knows trivia on television works well. That apart, personalising the performers, with their back-stories, makes any contest enjoyable. There is an element of that in the film. But only up to a point.

And I don't blame the filmmakers. The choice of the subject can take them thus far, and no further. There are at least two movie reccos within this film, that should ideally show up in the 'more like this' panel on Netflix, if you're further interested still — Doug Atchison's Akeela And The Bee (2006), and Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound (2002).

Watch the trailer of Spelling the dream here

I was only too happy to have learnt two new words. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis — meaning a lung disease caused by inhaling fine ash and sand dust. And, humuhumunukunukuapua, which is a triggerfish, with snout like a pig! What am I going to do with this extra-curricular information? Just what I did with all the trigonometry and calculus from class. Nothing. Ain't that true for so much of what we learn as kids. Or hope to achieve with it anyway. Who knows though, like Jamal from Slumdog Millionaire, what comes handy, where, and when!

A general hypothesis that this film draws about desis being so good with spelling is that all of them are multi-lingual. Which is of course by and large common to Indian kids — something we take for granted.

Here's another thing that, to me, seemed common to all these children. Their parents. They had all migrated after formal education in India. Which teaches you to become what, exactly? Undisputed champions at rote-learning in the world! I nearly scored 100 per cent in Sanskrit in tenth grade. And I can't even string a single sentence in Sanskrit.

We also know how to crack exams. That's what you see with a father in this film. He's patiently drawn a secret kunji/key to Spelling Bee. It's a bank of 475,000 words, that all questions have appeared from. He's compressed this lot to 125,000, by removing extensions of base words—sleep/sleeping, etc. His son Shaurav, with the swag of a sure-shot winner, has mugged up the whole lot, over years. He wears his lucky, Nike hoodie and vomits answers in split seconds before a confident, sly smile. I know Shaurav. He went to school with me. In Delhi. 30 years ago!

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