Underneath My Wings………….
“Define success on your own terms
Achieve it by your own rules,
And build a life you are proud to live”
Los Angeles: Fearless, passionate, dreamy, creative, dynamic, and yet enigmatic……. It’s Kajri Akhtar. A self-assured adventurous soul who has marked her presence from New Delhi to Mumbai and Los Angeles. The above quote resonates very well with her personality, achievements, successes, struggles, aspirations, and dreams.
Excerpts of her interview with Nitu Ahluwalia Arora.
Kajri, please tell us about your journey from being a successful producer in India to the skyscrapers of Los Angeles?
Moving to Los Angeles, when I was thriving as a Producer in my country, was not an easy feat but having accomplishments from India kept me going and even helped me in sailing through the pandemic. Growing up, I always had an artistic penchant and the credit of being an all-rounder goes to my mother as she has always encouraged me to approach newer ideas and skills. Film making is one such passion that is the culmination of my artistic endeavors and a surprisingly true prediction of my mum! For me, the shift from sociology to feminist drives and to film-making was swift and I knew that expression through film craft is what I have been craving for, to connect my creative aspirations with the mainstream society.
Studying Film and TV Producing at UCLA gave me a chance to learn the workings of Hollywood. It gave me the knowledge I needed to become a successful Producer in Los Angeles. I also diversified myself as a filmmaker and learned screenwriting and script development to add a new-skills to my skillset.
Tell us more about your work experience in Bollywood Film and TV Industry.
While I was in Mumbai – I worked on many films including the blockbuster hit Two states where I assisted national award-winning cinematographer, Binod Pradhan. But I wanted more creative control and found myself at a crossroads. I started looking for exciting projects and switched gears to Producing. After a couple of years of freelance work, I applied for a job at award-winning filmmaker Bharat Sikka’s studio, Ransom Films. Ransom films are one of the best ad film production companies in India and there I worked with Honda, 100 Pipers, Star TV, Google, and Cadbury.
Empowering women remained at the centre of my work at Ransom film. Our Star TV ad film was a huge success – it was about breaking gender stereotypes and empowering the girl child. The ad film was called ‘Hurdles’ and it helped the network relaunch their brand nationwide. Since it was a very important project for the network – a big budget was allocated but we didn’t have much time for production. We worked with international talent and technicians, brought together a global team to Hyderabad to shoot this film where we cast local women athletes who represented India at the international level.
My role was integral as I was not only overseeing creatives but also working on ground production. I was the only member of the team to travel before the shoot to get everything ready for shoot. I coordinated with line producers, found talent for the film, scouted locations, and coordinated the production design. It was a tough project to pull off. Working with renowned creative talent from all over the world with changing artistic requirements was never easy, especially when there is very little turnaround time. We had to build sets from scratch and cast suitable talent. The biggest challenge was when we had to reimagine creatives at the last minute as the director wanted to shoot the film in one continuous shot! I made it happen with the support of my team. The advertisement was a grand success and inspired many girls all across the country to keep pushing through hurdles.
My workaround women empowerment, my love for filmmaking, and my passion to be creative on my own terms pushed me to start my women-centric creative studio and it is called ‘Icchi the Cat. Being a producer at Ransom and at my own company ‘Icchi the Cat’ are two career milestones that are very close to my heart.
I am curious to know more about your brainchild, ‘Icchi the Cat’, and what is it to be a successful woman Producer in India?
‘Icchi the Cat’, is a New Delhi and Los Angeles-based creative studio which is based on the fundamentals of stylized craftivism, equal opportunities irrespective of gender, and newer and fresher collaborations. ‘Icchi’ is into ad films, fashion and music videos, documentaries, film making, art appreciation events, production designing, and everything that comes in the realm of film craft. We, at ‘Icchi’ are risk-takers, responsible curators, open-minded, and ready to enhance our ways to reach the hearts of the audiences. We are working with commercial giants and as well as NGOs; not to forget that egalitarianism and equalitarianism form the core values of ‘Icchi the Cat’.
Each project of ‘Icchi the cat’ had more than 70% of women in the team. Key roles were played by female technicians. I was a woman entrepreneur navigating the role of Founder and Producer and started ‘Icchi the cat’ right before I turned 30.
The idea was to empower and support the up-and-coming women's talent and provide them a platform to amplify their work, opinions, and voices! My goal as a Producer is not only to achieve commercial success but also to build and maintain a great team of creatives from different backgrounds and make them feel encouraged under my leadership. We have to change the hierarchical and patriarchal approach that has been established in the entertainment industry forever. I aim my work and passion to achieve this.
Our readers would like to know more about your journey and how you have made a commercial success along with your social impact?
With my love for film craft and passion to be creative on my own terms that I started a creative studio. In a short span of time, ‘Icchi the Cat’ has been produced for over 15 corporate companies, NGOs, and start-ups.
This includes a brand film ‘Infinite dreams’ for Urban Company (formerly known as Urban Clap) that focuses on women empowerment and how Indian women have been finding their own voice through their small businesses with the help of Urban Company. Urban Company is a leader in providing all kinds of services in India. ‘Infinite dreams’ was the company’s first big-budget film and we decided that it would be a great idea to celebrate their women's workforce and release it on International Women’s Day. My company Icchi the cat produced this film in only 3 days!
As a producer, it was a huge achievement for me. I was not only handling big budgets and working with the leading corporates but was also making a difference by producing creative stories. ‘Infinite dreams’ was a huge success for the company and it helped them reach out to their women audience in rural as well as urban segments in India. Their women customer base grew manifold and there was a jump in their membership. It was a proud moment for me and my company to have added this badge to our list of achievements.
Did you face any hurdles?
This project was impossible in terms of budget – we had our share of difficult moments to get permissions in Delhi and had to shoot on Delhi-Gurugram-Highway! I dealt with police and government officials along with taking care of production and creative direction. We had a small - just 3 people crew, and we managed to create this film in time to release on International Women’s Day. It was hugely successful and was Icchi’s first big-budget project.
Our readers would like to know about your projects in the pipeline.
I am working at a production studio ‘We the people’ where our main aim is to uplift and amplify minority talent, work, and voices. I have produced some music videos. I am deeply committed to South Asian identity to be recognized in the entertainment Industry. I am always looking to collaborate with my community along with different cultures. I worked on projects like a film directed by Hena Ashraf who immigrated to the US as a young girl with her family. The film is called 'The Return'. It is a memoir of Hena and her father and how she deals with his passing. The film speaks to everyone who has come to a faraway land and is trying to find roots.
I am passionate to celebrate the successes of women - my own, the people I work with, and other women across the world through the stories I produce. I want to tell them that it is easy to be successful but difficult to live a life that is true to one's heart and values.
It was an interesting session with you, Kajri. I must say you are up and ready to tell stories through your craft.
Telling stories and rejuvenating philosophies!!
To know more about her