A dynasty unnoticed yet really intriguing and amazing! It’s been 19 years in a row that Indian American kids have been emerging as winners at the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition. 19 out of the last 23 winners of the spelling bee competition have been Indian Americans, creating an incredible trend since 1999. Capturing this astounding trend, well known director Sam Rega in his award-winning documentary ‘Breaking the Bee’ brings out the essence of the competition and reveals interesting facts about this amazing tradition of the Indian Americans succeeding at the contests.

“I was really amazed by the statistics on the spelling bee competitions. It was all happening right in front of us, aired on ESPN but hardly anyone reported or noticed such an intriguing trend. The idea was brought to me by Chris Weller, who did research and detailed analysis on this trend for several years and is also the producer of the movie,” said Sam Rega, Director, Editor and Co-Producer of the documentary.

“Sports has always fascinated me. I love competitions and people pushing themselves to their limits. It can be either physical or mental limits, or even both. This was the perfect film that had everything in it, right from sports, family, team efforts to meticulous planning,” added Rega.

The feature-length documentary has already gained international acclaim since its world premiere at the 2018 Cleveland International Film Festival and also got premiered at New York Indian Film Festival. Speaking about the tremendous response received so far, the director stated that people were incredibly engaged throughout, with tickets sold out in both film festivals. The gasps, groans and cheering during the entire screening of the movie was the best ever feedback received. 

Held at the US national level, the Scripps National spelling bee competition has a golden history of 90 years, helping students improve their spelling, vocabulary and correct English usage. This documentary explores and celebrates this new dynasty of Indian American winners by taking the audience through the journeys of four students: Akash, Ashrita, Shourav, and Tejas, aged between 7-14, as they vie for the title of spelling bee champion.

More than just a competition, it is the love for the language that has been depicted as the key point in the documentary. The film portrays a complete picture of the competition and the entire process behind it. We get a behind-the scenes look at family discussions on word formations and patterns, personal database of words, learning phases and even lucky charms. The film includes informative interviews with current competing spellers, their parents, former spelling bee champions and experts, drawing you into this world, even if you have never watched a single episode of spelling bee competition

Brushing aside the perception of Indian parents as tiger parents, Sam Rega stated, “For Indian American parents, the competition is more like a family sport. Parents are seen getting really involved in each step of the preparation and enjoy playing spelling bee with the kids. This is the reason why the competition sees more siblings joining as they see their brother or sister enjoy the process. Most of the Indian American parents are multilingual themselves and hence they train their kids also to learn different languages and understand the nuances of it. There was a universal support from the families when they heard about the making of this film. It was like everyone was living the trend but even they didn’t know why it was happening.”

Rega added: “I think it was the perfect storm of events that came together to build the trend. The 1965 Immigration Act laid the foundation for the wave of influx of highly educated immigrants from South Asia, especially India. These families have a strong focus on education and raised their kids to value education. In 1985, when they first saw a South Asian kid emerge as winner on screen, it was: ‘If he can do it, then we can do it too.’” It was a key moment, with front page newspaper headlines, and every kid wanted to participate and showcase their talent on a larger platform.”

On the dark side of fame, the director opined, “It’s unfortunate that a few of the winners had to face racist comments. They earned the prize with their hard work and you cannot bash the kids with nasty comments. It’s terrible as they are just kids and hence we have included those elements as well in the film to show on how it was a rollercoaster ride for these families. People should consider that even they are Americans and part of the same community. I hope the movie as a whole can change the perceptions of many and people would open their arms for a global community.”

With future plans to screen the movie at various other film festivals, the makers are also seeking options to distribute the movie to a wider audience by streaming on TV to reach a global audience..

Breaking the Bee (2018). Director and Editor: Sam Rega. Writers and Producers: Sam Rega and Chris Weller.

Suchithra Pillai comes with nearly a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and United States. In her spare time, you can find her scribbling down some thoughts on paper, trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things, or expressing her love for dance on stage.

This article was written by Suchithra Pillai and edited by Culture and Media Editor, Geetika Pathania Jain.