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‘Spelling the Dream’ offers a fresh take on word contests: Why do Indian-American kids so often win?

The Netflix documentary traces the trend to a shift in U.S. law in 1965.

At 7, Akash Vukoti rattles off the letters in an impossibly lengthy word in “Spelling the Dream.”
Netflix

Pollyanna took me down.

I don’t remember a single word I spelled correctly when I made a fairly deep run in a spelling competition when I was in the fourth grade — but I’ll never forget “Pollyanna.” I had never heard the word until I was onstage with three or four other surviving contestants, and the judge asked me to spell it.

Definition? “A person who looks at the world through rose-colored glasses,” came the reply. What the heck did THAT mean? The only person I could think of who looked at the world through rose-colored glasses was Elton John. I knew not of the 1913 novel or the 1960 film about an 11-year-old orphan named Pollyanna who was forever optimistic in the face of adversity. I guessed the spelling was P-O-L-L-I-A-N-N-A, and just like that it was back to the Little League season.

Spelling bees — and in particular the Scripps National Spelling Bee — have a unique place in American culture, especially since 1994, when ESPN started televising the finals with coverage akin to an NBA playoff game. Although we’ve seen terrific documentaries about the spelling bee before, e.g., “Spellbound” from 2003, the new Netflix documentary “Spelling the Dream” is a fresh take on the competition, focusing largely on the phenomenon of Indian-American dominance over the last quarter-century.

“[There’s this notion] that it’s somehow genetic or even ethnic,” says the journalist and TV commentator Fareed Zakaria, “but the Indians who do well in spelling bees in America are drawn from Indians who were very adventurous and decided to take advantage of the relaxation of immigration laws in 1965.”

As the documentary explains, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act lifted discrimination against non-European ethnic groups, but with the caveat the first to be admitted would be the most educated and successful individuals who could provide a monetary value to the USA. Engineers and doctors and other professionals from India came to America — and gave birth to a generation of children with access to the high quality education.

For the most part, “Spelling the Dream” follows the traditional competition-documentary formula of such films as “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” (2007) and last year’s “Foosballers” in that we’re introduced to a handful of talented hopefuls and follow their paths to the national stage. We meet the impossibly precocious and adorable Akash Vukoti, who is now 10 but is just 7 when he appears on camera here and spells … wait for it …

Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

Once again, that’s …

Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

We also meet 14-year-old Shourav Dasari, described by a friend as being “like Michael Jordan … consistently the best speller in the school, in the state and probably the nation,” and 10-year-old Ashrita Gandhari, who at 5 years old was competing with kids twice her age. And we hear from former champions who are now adults and speak of how spelling bees were the first vehicles that made them feel as if they belonged to a community and weren’t different from everyone else their age.

Ashrita Gandhari, one of the subjects of “Spelling the Dream,” celebrates a victory with her parents.
Netflix

As for criticism that spelling bees put too much pressure on young children and mastering half the dictionary doesn’t have any real-world practicality: The families as depicted in this documentary seem very well-adjusted and aware of perspective. And it’s hard to see the difference between the millions of families who encourage their kids to play on multiple traveling sports teams for years on end, when only a tiny percentage of them will ever get a full ride to college, let alone turn pro.