Breaking the bee: Indian kids are spelling out a new sport in America
Akash Vukoti entered his first Spelling Bee contest when he was 2 years old. He was still in diapers. He won his first competition when he was 4. And became the youngest speller at the nationals in 2016, at the age of six. Now 8, Vukoti will take another crack at the title next week at an oceanside resort complex outside Washington DC that hosts the national Scripps Spelling Bee.
Vukoti is one of the four stars of “Breaking the Bee,” a documentary that follows four Indian-American spellers and their families to chronicle the unrelenting, viselike grip the tiny community of 4 million people, less than 1% of the US population, has on an American institution.
It also tries to explain it. The children are brilliant no doubt, but it’s also sheer hard work, by them, and their families and by the community.
And, finally, it gives the immigrant community a platform to unabashedly flaunt their Americanness: “Wow, Indians are on ESPN,” says Sanjay Gupta, a celebrity Indian American physician interviewed on the film.
The bee finals have been aired live by the sports channel, an institution itself, for more than two decades now.
Since 2008, every telecast has ended with an Indian-American — or more, co-winners in recent years — holding up the trophy as confetti shimmered down around them.
The film calls them the “New sports dynasty” — 19 of 95 Bee winners to date have been Indian-American children, an incredible 20%; and 17 of those in the last 18 years alone. There are more than 130 of them among the 516 competing for the crown this year.
Sam Rega, who made this film with a former colleague from Business Insider, Chris Weller, won’t be there this year because he is getting married this weekend. But, he said in an interview, he will be keeping a close eye on it — on the bubbly Vukoti and the quietly confident Arshita Gandhari, another star of the film who is an 11-year-old fifth-grader.
“I may be biased because I know them and their families, but I think both have the potential to win,” he said, barely able to conceal the fear of high expectations felt by most parents.
It matters to him, and Weller. During the 2017 championship, Rega said, “At times, our stress levels were probably higher than their parents’ stress levels; we were nervous, we were nervous and we were excited.”
But they had to bottle those feelings and emotions and keep shooting because, Rega added, “at the end of the day we were bystanders, we had to show what happened”.
The filmmakers spent days with these families “squished” in their cars as they travelled to and from competitions, in their homes as they prepared for the bee, and when they ate. The families insisted everyone on the crew ate with them. “I had never had Indian cuisine cooked at home before,” Rega said.
Vukoti didn’t make the 2017 national bee. Gandhari did, and ended up in to the last 40, which the family declares on the film was as well as they had expected. The other two stars Sourav Dasari and Tejas Muthuswamy — who had had multiple shots at the bee and who Rega calls “veterans” — made it to the last 10 and five respectively.
None of them won, but their journey is the story, their story and of those before them.
The watershed year was 1985 when Balu Natarajan became the first Indian American to win the bee — his championship word was “milieu”.
He is Dr Natarajan now, and says in the film that it wasn’t until decades later that he actually became aware of what his victory meant for the community, when he heard from Indian-American parents that it was 1985 that put the bee on the map for Indians.
And now they own that map, having broken the bee.