When Mumbai-based writer and editor Runcil Rebello started a Twitter poll to identify A.R. Rahman’s top songs, he didn’t expect it to become a phenomenon that would launch hundreds of memes, travel across platforms to Instagram and Reddit, and get people to write essays on their favourite Rahman songs. Nor did he anticipate that the popular Netflix India account would refer to it in a sly tweet and cricket host Sidharth Monga would talk about the bracket on ESPNCricinfo. He was just looking to do something fun; something that would bring back the feel of an older Twitter that was more about celebrating the glorious randomness of the internet rather than being an ideological battleground.
The running poll (actually, think of it as a sporting contest where teams are pitted against each other in smaller and smaller pools), #ARRHindiBracket on Twitter, started with 128 songs and is down to the final eight—the culmination of a hotly contested battle that has brought good-natured fun to our Twitter timelines, normally inundated with grumpy tweets from middle-aged “thought leaders”.
Over the past few weeks, “Fanaatics” (fans of the Yuva song Fanaa) have pitted themselves against the “Pigeon gang” (those who love the pigeon-worshipping Masakali from Delhi-6), who have lobbed veiled insults at Ranbircels (who love songs from films with music by Rahman that also star Ranbir Kapoor), who have quote-tweeted Taalcoholics (yes, fans of the music from Taal) with extreme prejudice.
It has been the most absurd, funny, nostalgia-including, let-me-create-my-own Spotify-playlist fan-service moment in a long while, and there has perhaps never been a more glorious celebration of Rahman’s music. Oscars? What Oscars?
Rebello, 33 (@MrNarci on Twitter), followed the bracket tournament format when he started the polling on 19 March. “The initial longlist was about 180 songs but due to the power of 2, the next highest number was 256 and that would have been stretching it,” he says in a conversation over Twitter DMs and email. He asked two friends from Twitter, @peeekaaaaa (Priyanka) and @PermanentManx (Manx), to help him whittle the list to 128. “They actually didn’t know each other before this but got along well, starting with our shared love for A.R. Rahman’s songs. For the seeding, we thought of different ways.... Priyanka initially suggested we go by YouTube views, which would have been a problem, as Param Sundari from Mimi, which, while a good song, isn’t one of Rahman’s most iconic tracks, would have been in the top 10 seeds. We then did a draft pick; I went first, Priyanka second, Manx third, but we would do a reverse on the next 3, so Manx got fourth, Priyanka got fifth and I got sixth. Rinse repeat till we reach 128,” explains Rebello.
It isn’t meant to be an objective process. But this means people have accused Rebello of playing favourites—semi-snarky comments like “which song is going to win and why is it going to be Chhaiya Chhaiya?” are thrown around on voting days but Rebello says the poll creators knew they needed to have the icons in the top seeds. “This isn’t actually sport, where there are rankings already in place…plus of course we are human and sometimes our personal favourites may have been seeded higher. But overall, I think, we managed to get a good list, especially seeing how the results have turned out so far.” Chhaiya Chhaiya is indeed in the top 8.
“I have wanted to run a bracket contest for a while but the idea of doing it on Rahman songs came to me fully formed one night. Besides my own love for Rahman’s music, it made sense because he has a vast number of songs, is much loved (and could attract people to participate), has compositions across genres and types—jazz or rock, Indian classical or ballad, or EDM-inspired dance tracks—and has been composing great quality music for almost 3 decades now,” says Rebello. “I absolutely do believe in the ‘slow poison’ school of thought regarding Rahman. Yes, he does have bangers and bops that will hit from Day 1 but with him, there’s also a rediscovery that can keep happening with songs you maybe didn’t like at first. That happened with me during the #ARRHindiBracket with songs from Tamasha and Raanjhanaa.”
Most people agree that along with a Spotify playlist of all 128 songs, one of the best things to come out of all this has been the meme wars over favourite songs and voting patterns. They have been absolutely insane fun, agrees Rebello, but people have engaged at a deeper level too. “We really did not expect that 16 people would agree to write short essays about their favourites from the Round of 16 songs. Lots of people put time into making memes or writing essays and that’s the greatest gift back to us,” he says.
In the past day or two, though, things have been taking a nastier turn. There's a lot of light-hearted snark still, sure, but also some genuine negativity that has seeped into the contest. Rebello says some people have probably misunderstood what a Bracket Tournament does. “We had a few people say but why are you ranking his songs? Or why are you doing this when you know Chaiyya Chaiyya will win. But that's not the point. Sure, if we're speaking plainly, a Bracket Tournament will crown a winner, and sure, maybe Chaiyya Chaiyya is the winner for this particular bracket, but the fun is in the journey till that point," says Rebello. “The fun was all the memes, stories, anecdotes that this inspired. Maybe the real winner is the friends we made along the way.”
“Plus, did I mention how much of Rahman's music I discovered or rediscovered during this entire time? It's been amazing really.”