- Sujata Day’s ‘Definition Please’ inspired us to look at some of the past winners, their education, and career paths, to examine the edge a spelling bee win has given them in their lives.
Sujata Day’s debut directorial “Definition Please” is being hailed for shattering stereotypes associated with South Asian American communities — whether it’s an unconventional career path or mental health issues. The film, also starring Day, and produced by her, is currently streaming on Netflix. It follows Monica Chowdhary (Day), a national spelling bee champ who hasn’t really accomplished much in life as she deals with a sick mom (Anna Khaja) and a mentally ill brother (Ritesh Rajan). Together they redefine themselves as they walk the line between their American and Indian cultures.
“Definition Please” stemmed from Day’s fascination with spelling bees. In an earlier interview, Day told American Kahani that she would watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN and feel a sense of pride as she saw an Indian American claim the trophy year after year. Many years later, while attending an improv sketch writing class at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2015, Day decided to have one of the themes of her sketches be a “Where are they now?” for spelling bee winners.
“If you Google spelling bee winners, you always see that they’re doing really amazing stuff with their triple PhDs, working at NASA, or they’re killing it on the professional Poker Tour,” she said. And the question that she answered in her sketch was: “What if one of these amazing 10-year-old spellers grew up to be a loser and just lived at home and didn’t achieve anything in their life?”
Day’s observation is not without merit. For over a decade, Indian American kids have been ruling the national spelling bee circuit and claiming the championship trophy. Scripps National Spelling Bee data shows that 27 of the last 35 winners were of Indian origin.
In 2019, eight children — seven of them Indian Americans — were declared co-winners at the coveted bee. Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of California; Saketh Sundar, 13, of Maryland; Shruthika Padhy, 13, of New Jersey; Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Texas; Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Texas; Christopher Serrao, 13, of New Jersey, Rohan Raja, 13, of Texas; and Erin Howard, 14, of Alabama — closed the bee with 47 correct spellings in a row in a final that went into 20 rounds. That was the first time that more than two co-champions were named in the national bee.
However, Indian Americans’ 13-year dominance in the national bee ended last year, when Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana spelled her way to win the 2021 competition, becoming the bee’s first African American champion in its 98-year-old history.
In 2014, Sriram Hathwar of New York, and Ansun Sujoe of Texas were named co-winners for the first time in Scripps history. Two years later, Sriram’s younger brother Jairam Hathwar was declared co-champion with Nihar Saireddy Janga of Texas. Sriram is currently a senior at Princeton University studying applied math with research interests in computational biology and genomics. Sujoe, a machine learning and Artificial Intelligence enthusiast, graduated from the University of Texas, Dallas with a B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science, and currently works as an AI researcher at Lockheed Martin.
A year later, Vanya Shivshankar and Gokul Venkatachalam were co-winners. Vanya is the younger sister of Kavya Shivshankar, who won the Scripps National Bee in 2009. While Kavya just graduated from medical school, at Thomas Jefferson University, her sister Vanya is a pre-med junior at Yale.
Reasons for Indian American Dominance
So what makes these kids excel in spelling bees? Several studies and documentaries have tried to answer the question. In a research exploring the extraordinary success rate of Indian Americans at spelling bees, Sanjoy Chakravorty of Temple University, Devesh Kapur at the University of Pennsylvania and Nirvikar Singh at the University of California-Santa Cruz found out that education, memorization and networks give Indian American kids an edge over others. Similar traits were explored in the 2002 documentary “Spellbound” and more recently in Sam Rega’s “Spelling the Dream,” also titled “Breaking the Bee,” which spotlights four young Indian American spellers trying to make their way through a competitive field.
Rega told The New York Times in a 2018 interview that ESPN’s decision to broadcast the bee since 1994 and Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 documentary “Spellbound,” “raised the profile of spelling in the South Asian community and made more kids want to participate.”
“Spellbound” followed eight competitors in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, including that year’s champion Nupur Lala. The film received positive reviews and won several awards, including a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Lala was 14 when she won the title by correctly spelling “logorrhea.” Currently a neuro-oncology resident at Memorial Sloan Kettering, she graduated from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Prior to medical school, she earned a BS from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and an MS from the MD Anderson University of Texas Health Graduate School in Houston.
In the Times interview, Rega offered several theories for the Indian American dominance in spelling bees. He said one of the key factors is how the families of participants tackle it as a “family sport” and work together as a unit. “They want to create a bond between parent and child,” he said, adding that while spellers look to their parents as role models and coaches, their siblings often play assistant coaches. “Parents like to instill values like dedication, hard work, and how to handle yourself in defeat or success.”
He credited the involvement of the community as a whole as well. He referenced the North South Foundation, which began hosting academic competitions like spelling bees in the early 1990s. “They focus on helping spellers prepare for the national competition,” Rega told the Times of the foundation headquartered in Burr Ridge, Illinois. “They’ll even stop in the middle of a bee, and give guidance like, “speak a little louder, ask this question, or that question.” He also mentioned the South Asian Spelling Bee which was established in 2008, “which coincidentally, is also the beginning of the 11-year streak of South Asian winners of the national bee.”
The title of Day’s film has a double meaning. The first meaning is that “definition please” is a question a speller asks when they want more time to figure out how to spell the word in their brain. The second meaning is posing the question, “who or what defines us? “For Monica, it is about who she defines herself as,” Day said, and what others see her as. “The other issue is the “model minority” myth that almost every South Asian American kid grows up with,” she noted. “Perfect grades, perfect SAT scores, perfect GPA, music, dance, sports – the works. And the stress of it all manifests in so many ways and affects people’s mental health. In the film, Monica’s brother Sonny has untreated bipolar disorder symptoms.
There is no doubt that winning the coveted spelling bee puts these youngsters in the spotlight and gives them a chance to meet important people like the president, celebrities and make several television appearances. But does it set them on a path for world-class education and exceptional careers?
2000 champ George Thampi of St Louis, Missouri, believes it does. He told BBC that spelling was pivotal to his success, teaching him “a love of learning and an attention to detail and incredible appreciation of the languages and systems that underpin our society.” He graduated from Harvard in 2010 and obtained an MBA from Stanford in 2017. He is currently the senior director of Business Development at CareDx in San Francisco, California.
In the same interview, Scripps Spelling Bee spokesman Tim King told BBC that “there is a correlation between children who have the academic discipline to succeed at spelling and success in future academic endeavors.”
Where Are They Now?
Inspired by the theme in “Definition Please,” American Kahani decided to follow up on a few of the Indian American spelling bee champs to see where they are now.
A glance at some of their LinkedIn profiles shows a significant number of them currently enrolled in or graduating from an Ivy League Institution. Many like Balu Natarajan, Rageshree Ramachandran and Lala have chosen medicine as their profession, while others like Kavya Shivashankar and Anamika Veeramani are currently in med schools, aspiring to be doctors. While some of the recent winners are still in high school, several are pursuing their undergraduate studies in prestigious institutions.
Rageshree Ramachandran, who won the bee in 1988, got a jumpstart to her college education. After completing high school in three years, she joined Stanford at age 16, after winning a $10,000 Westinghouse Science Talent Search scholarship. She went on to do her Ph. D and M.D. in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, where she is currently an assistant professor.
1985 champ Balu Natarajan, the first desi kid to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, is now a practicing doctor specializing in sports medicine. He received his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University and chose to study medicine at Northwestern Medical School. After residency, he completed a sports medicine fellowship in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he focused specifically on work with high school and college area athletes.
2003 winner Sai Gunturi graduated from Tufts in 2011 with a degree in quantitative economics and an MBA from Kellogg School of Management in 2021, per his LinkedIn profile. He currently works as a consultant with Boston Consulting Group in Austin, Texas.
While most past winners chose conventional careers, 2002 winner Pratyush Buddiga was a fixture on the professional poker circuit and was ranked #2 in the world for tournaments. He played under the screen name of Shane Gamble from 2011 to 2017, after graduating from Duke University. The New Zealand-born Buddiga moved to the U.S. at age 5. He retired after winning over $6 million and currently is an investor with the San Francisco-based Susa Ventures where he is involved in cryptocurrency. Before investing in Susa, he worked on a crypto gaming project at Three Arrows Capital and as the chief of staff to the CEO at Volley, a voice-controlled entertainment startup, according to LinkedIn.
Some past winners went on to win other competitions and scholarships. In 2005, Anurag Kashyap, who spelled “Appoggiatura” correctly to win the bee, won the “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament as well. Kashyap went on to attend MIT and graduated in 2015. Arvind Mahankali, who overcame his fear of German words to clinch the title in 2013, received the Goldwater Scholarship in April 2021. A student at Carnegie Mellon University, he is working on his Ph.D. in computer science, focusing on algorithms and machine learning.
While 2008 winner Sameer Mishra found a way to stay connected with the bee as an independent contributor, Snigdha Nandipati, who took home the trophy in 2012, is a published author. A medical assistant, patient advocate, and lead diabetes clinic coordinator at the San Francisco Free Clinic, she has delivered a TEDx talk about the intersection of science and tradition.
So no matter what career they choose, the head start a spelling bee win provides to set these winners on a path to success cannot be overlooked — whether is a good education or exposure to people and events. Add to that discipline, dedication, persistence, self-confidence, communication and public speaking skills, and the ability to thrive under pressure, it’s a win-win formula for the making of a champion.