AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s you against the dictionary.
That’s how producer Chris Weller describes the national spelling bee scene, and in his upcoming Netflix documentary “Spelling the Dream,” he features an Austin native — and if a dictionary could be afraid of someone, it would be terrified of him.
Weller describes Austin’s Nihar Janga, now a freshman in high school, as someone who “dominates with humility.” Janga shared the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee title with Jairam Hathwar as a fifth-grader, and is part of one of the most impressive dynasties in American competition — Indian-American students winning the nation’s top spelling competition.
The past 12 champs have been Indian-American, and since 1999, 19 of the past 23 winners have ethnic roots from the Asian nation. Weller, a spelling bee fan himself, noticed the trend in 2013 and wondered why it was happening.
He met Sam Rega (who previously made the documentary “Breaking the Bee”), a co-writer and director of the documentary, in 2015. He pitched the idea of exploring the trend to Rega, and off they went.
“You could say curiosity drew me in,” Weller said, “but the families and the kids are what kept me committed.”
Following the champ
Weller and Rega followed four spelling bee champions for the film. One of them was Janga. What struck Weller most about Janga was how gracious and respectful he was to his competitors.
“He knows his stuff, but he isn’t boastful,” Weller said. “He celebrated equally if he spelled his word correctly and if his opponent, Jairam Hathwar, got his word right.”
Janga said he started doing spelling bees in kindergarten because he “enjoyed putting letters together to make words,” and he won his first national championship in the third grade. He won both the spelling and vocabulary bees at the North South Foundation National Finals, and after he missed the Scripps National Spelling Bee by one spot the year after, in 2015, he said he dedicated himself to making the field.
“I started my intensive training daily after that,” Janga said. “My mom coached me by preparing word lists and quizzing me on not only the correct order of the letters, but also their etymology and definitions to ensure my understanding of the word’s usage in the real world, rather than just its spelling.”
Janga’s training paid off, and he said his success doesn’t just reflect his hard work. He said the prize also belongs to his family, and they helped him every step of the way.
“I really enjoyed preparing for the bees because it was a family effort and brought us together every day,” he said. He also mentioned that after competitions were done, he and his family planned to take a long trip to “get away from it all.”
And when he’s not in a spelling competition, he goes out and wins geography bees, too. He’s the first person in history to win both the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the National Geographic Geography Bee. He picked up the geography bee championship last year, and said he’d dream about winning both competitions.
And typically, after he realized those dreams, it was the best feeling he’d ever felt.
“Both times, it felt like I was dancing on the clouds above the summit of Mount Everest,” he said.
Weller said he wanted to make this documentary to celebrate the success of kids like Janga. He was well-aware of all the stereotypes that go along with the spelling bee and the kids in them, and he wanted to make sure the film put success at the forefront.
“Race and culture are always sensitive topics in filmmaking, even more so if the story involves kids,” he said. “So from the very beginning we promised ourselves that this would be a celebratory film. It would honor the culture and tell the story from the points of view of the people living the story.”
Weller made sure to mention that these kids are just like any other American kid, that they spend their free time doing more than just reading a dictionary and studying. Some are musicians, some love to play video games and some are into other sports. Janga himself said he took up rowing in the past year, and now he’s active in the Austin Rowing Club and loves it.
“I’m trying my best to become really good at it,” Janga said.
Weller said the film’s focus is on the kids, whom he calls “the stars of the show,” but he and his team also realize that the stereotypes are out there and addressed them.
“We included commentary from social scientists on issues like social media bullying and representation in the media,” Weller said.
Also included in the film are perspectives from nationally-recognized Indian-Americans in television, comedy and sports. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria, comedian Hari Kondabolu, ESPN’s Kevin Negandhi and 1999 Scripps Spelling Bee champion Nupur Lala help give context to what the winning streak means to the community they’re all part of.
Life after the bee
Janga has aspirations of becoming a neurosurgeon, and specifically, he wants to research Alzheimer’s disease and brain tumors to figure out how to reverse their effects.
“I want to take on the social responsibility to fight against mental health issues, primarily in teenagers, as that is a huge problem that needs to be mitigated,” he said.
He plans to be involved in anthropology and sociology organizations so he can better understand human behavior and “the impact of surrounding society.”
Janga has lofty goals, there’s no doubt about that. If anybody can accomplish goals like that, Weller says it’s Janga.
“His passion for academics and committing himself to mastering on competition after another both inspire me, and fills me with incredible guilt for all those years I spent playing video games.” Weller said.
The film hits Netflix on May 23, the day before the 2020 Scripps National Spelling Bee was supposed to begin. The COVID-19 pandemic has led organizers to suspend it this year. You can read more about Netflix’s upcoming releases on its website.