Surprising fact: a New Zealander created the music for the Bollywood movies Margarita with a Straw and Bombay Velvet. He won “Best Composer” at the 2015 Asian Film Awards for the former. His name is Mikey McCleary.

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McCleary was born in Chennai to New Zealander parents, but then moved out of India. When you listen to his music, it feels like 1970s-80s Bollywood music on steroids. His website, mikeymccleary.com has a sampling of his work, including Quick Gun Murugan, many well known commercials (Lakme, Cinthol, TVS Scooty), and a couple of his own albums. All of his work has a distinct, smooth sound that blends western and Indian influences.

How does a New Zealander “get” Bollywood? McCleary is not sure how that came to be, saying “Perhaps my family’s connection with India has helped me adapt. I’ve always enjoyed doing many different styles of music and I like the challenge of trying to understand Indian music and incorporate elements in my work.”

McCleary was re-introduced to India when he was working for a studio in London, focusing on Western music. He got lucky, literally, when he met Lucky Ali and started making music for his albums. That collaboration spurred him into attending Indian music concerts and working with other music directors such as A.R. Rahman.

The following interview Mikey McCleary attempts to score his career.

When and why did you decide to move to Bombay?
I moved about seven years ago. I had this feeling of ‘I must try living in India sometime’ building up inside me. I came here because it’s such a fascinating place and full of interesting music opportunities.

Which was your first TV commercial and first film?
It was a Lakme TV ad sung by Anushka Manchanda. First film was Aao Wish Karein.

What made you think up “Bartender,” the stage name for your own albums? Could you expand on that, share that moment of epiphany?
Well, it was a combination of things. When I started playing around with old songs and re-inventing them, I was making “smoky late night bar” type versions of these songs. The name Bartender seemed to suit the mood. Also Bartenders mix up concoctions much like I mix up music.

Specifically about Margarita with a Straw: How did that come about?
I met the director, Shonali Bose, after Shaad Ali recommended me to her. We started work on this film more than two years ago. Despite it being stretched out, the process always remained fresh and captivating. The last song (“Choone Chali Aasman”) was the toughest to finish. Even though the composition came really fast we couldn’t find the right voice to sing the song. After trying seven different voices out, we came back to the first singer Rachel Varghese. Often, first instincts are best. Winning the best composer award at Asian Film Awards was a huge bonus, particularly as I was getting married in New Zealand at the time of the award ceremony.

Did you get to see rushes of the movie while you were working on it, or just the plot, or …
First, I read the script and then worked on a few songs which were needed pre-shoot. After that, I saw many different edits as the film was fine-tuned. During that period, I did most of my composition for the other songs and the music score.

You are a music man. How do you craft your videos, which have an edgy vibe of their own?
Last year I made eight music videos. Many had interesting stories. I think the simplest and best one is
“The little things you do” featuring Anushka Manchanda. It was just Anushka, my director of photography and I who went off to Goa and made this video with very little budget and no production help. Somehow, it turned out nice.

In another one called “Aaj ki Raat” I created a film noir mystery story which involved romance, betrayal and murder in the bath tub. This was a huge challenge because we had many actors, it was technically very difficult in terms of lighting and set design, plus I tried to fit the plot of a full feature film into a three minute video.
(Both of these videos can be watched at mikeymccleary.com)

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz, and other genres.

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