Dubbed “the Indian Super Bowl” by comedian Hari Kondabolu, the past two decades have seen the Scripps National Spelling Bee transform from a quiet national tournament to a multi-day televised extravaganza on ESPN. Anyone who has watched or read coverage of the bee has also noticed the dominance of Indian-Americans among the bee’s young contestants, with the last thirteen winners or co-winners being students of Indian descent.
Over the years, many commentators and viewers have wondered how the Indian-American dominance of the spelling community came to be. The new documentary “Breaking the Bee,” sets out to answer that question by interviewing experts, Indian-American celebrities, and current and former contestants about why the National Spelling Bee has become a cultural milestone.
We reached out to “Breaking the Bee” director Sam Rega to talk about the documentary, what it was like meeting the young contestants, and how he got so many famous Indian-Americans to appear in his film.
The Teal Mango: This documentary was really fun and interesting, especially for people who watch the spelling bee every year. Did you know a lot about the spelling bee scene before you got started?
Sam Rega: This is the third documentary that I’ve directed but I didn’t know much about spelling bees before. In 2015, I was a producer for Business Insider and I directed the documentary “League of Millions,” which is about video gamers, for them. I worked with Chris Weller, who is a producer on this film, on “League of Millions” and he had watched the Spelling Bee for years and he gave me some stats about it — things like how 17 winners since 1999 have been Indian-American.
So we began talking about doing something like “League of Millions,” but for the spelling bee. We took the next couple of months to learn about it and learned about implications of things like the 1965 Immigration Act and the impact of movies like the documentary “Spellbound,” [which featured 1999 winner Nupur Lala.]
TTM: Did you watch the Bee much before you started this film?
Rega: I only knew what I had read online about the bee and most years, I did watch some of it on ESPN. I was actually in a spelling bee when I was in elementary school, but I never advanced. I didn’t know the ins and outs of that world or how many kids who are in it had siblings who had been spellers too. That was something I wanted to explore. Especially with that stereotype of ‘tiger parents,’ there has always been this misconception that it’s the parents pushing the kids to become spellers. What I found was that was not the case at all. These kids were driven to do it, they wanted to do it.
The kids often would play an instrument, spell and maybe play a sport like tennis. The parents we spoke to would sometimes ask, ‘Would you rather direct your energy towards something else? Do you want to focus on tennis?’ and the kids would say no.
TTM: I was impressed by how many well-known Indian-Americans appear in this film to talk about the Bee’s impact. There’s Hari Kondabolu, and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria, and Kevin Negandhi from ESPN among others. How did you get them all to participate?
Rega: It was really a matter of them connecting with the story and having an opinion on this but not necessarily having the platform to talk about it. For Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria, the spelling bee is not coming up every day in the stories they do.
But the spelling bee is this pop culture moment that people want to talk about. A lot of that has to be with ESPN deciding to broadcast the spelling bee starting in 1994. That makes it different from other competitions — the Geography Bee, for example, also has a lot of Indian-American participants, but that does not get nearly as much attention as the Spelling Bee does. Kevin Negandhi from ESPN hosts the Spelling Bee and to have something so connected to sports and that’s now covered like a sporting event, it is something everyone can connect to.
TTM: When we meet the spellers you follow in “Breaking the Bee,” it really does feel like you are watching a sporting event.
Rega: The thing about the spelling bee is that you age out at 14. So these are kids at the top of their field. You don’t see kids spelling in high school or beyond. We went in from the beginning knowing there was a historical story here, but we also knew that this is sort of a sports film. We wanted to give people that experience.
“Breaking the Bee” makes its New York City debut on May 12 as part of the New York Indian Film Festival. For more information, click here.