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Meet Kajri Akhtar

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kajri Akhtar.

Kajri, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I believe that our problems shape our destiny and it is in comfort and complacency that we cease to grow. I was raised by a single mother, who did not believe in gender roles and played the role of a friend, father and mother effortlessly. Growing up, I trained in classical dance, theatre and represented my city at the national level in swimming and diving. I did not know that all of my interests and training will someday converge into filmmaking.

My professional journey started at 18 as a photographer to capture anything that had a story to tell. After grad school, I pursued cinematography, shot independently and assisted DPs on Bollywood feature films. After a seven-year long sojourn with visual narratives, I realized I needed more creative control of my projects and started work at a film and art studio. This gave me time to rethink what I was doing. I had started to feel saturated working in Bollywood films but due to the fast pace of film work I missed recognizing that I needed to slow down. I went back to photography, art, literature and dug deeper into myself; something I was drifting away from. During this time, I worked on art projects and also TVCs for BMW, Hero Honda, Google, 100 Pipers to name a few. After focused training in production and saving some money, I built a beautiful loft and started my own production company. Although I absolutely love dogs, I called my film and design studio, ‘Icchi the Cat’!

After nine years of working in fairly diverse roles in the Indian Film and Advertising industry, I found myself becoming a bit stuck in comfort that I found in my work. I decided to go for a paradigm change and take on the challenge of reinventing my approach towards life, and acquiring formal training in Film and TV Producing.

Today, here I am, getting reacquainted with myself in California, out of my comfort zone; re-learning, starting from scratch, going beyond the Kajri others and I knew- on the road to becoming my own strongest ally.

I want to hone my skills and boost up my strengths in order to make a decisive dent in the film and TV industry where women are underrepresented and misrepresented. Art is created to heal and evoke. I want to make the process of creating film and art joyful, egalitarian and equal for every stakeholder. Growing up in an oppressive system and experiencing toxic patriarchy, I understand how this could kill creative spirit, passion and curiosity. I have already started by polishing my skills and focusing on my intentions and energies daily. The lockdown has been a blessing in disguise for us to rethink our paths and set intentions that makes this earth thrive with joy! We, as a community at large have a lot to change and I want to continually facilitate to shape that journey and give way to a more beautiful and just world.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
My path was a challenge from the very beginning. I was born to Hindu and Muslim parents, a stigmatized marriage that is looked down upon in India. My identity has always raised eyebrows and often times I find myself under scrutiny because my name is half hindu and half muslim.

But I believe my diverse identity gives me a rich background and a unique perspective in life. It taught me to find strength within to take on challenges that life presented. My parents eloped, broke all norms and got married in court wanting to be the change in society. They were the ones to instill idealism and the strength to stand up against any kind of injustice.

After my parents’ separation, another stigma in Indian society, I had my mother singlehandedly supporting my dreams and ambitions even when the financial situation was bleak. Her will to surpass all standards set by society made me the person who I am today.

I started as a camera assistant on Bollywood feature films, worked with renowned filmmakers, and grew into being an independent woman cinematographer in a male dominated industry. Through my struggles, I learnt that women have to fight many unnecessary battles to achieve what they rightfully deserve. I experienced many shades of patriarchy and stigma, however, exploitation at the workplace became a turning point in life and I decided to change the way I would treat my team and collaborators.
It wasn’t a smooth ride as my issues with mental health and financial struggle made me feel helpless and hopeless, but it made me realize I couldn’t take anything for granted in this life and that everything is transient. I recognized my anxiety disorder and accepted that I needed to seek professional help.

Mind body and soul are equal entities in making a person feel happy, healthy and positive and I had neglected my emotions and wellbeing in search of ‘professional stability’.

Stronger and wiser than before, I now am studying at UCLA, interning at two organizations, managing my team and business in Delhi, exploring data science, developing three projects which are currently in pre-production and also learning to play the piano.

My Buddhist practice has been a grounding and protective force through every phase of my life; it teaches me that when I choose to grow from my experiences and excel at what I do, I change the poison into medicine. I live by my mentor Dr Daisaku Ikeda’s words “Either we advance or we retreat-there is no middle ground. Either we cringe in fear and surrender to the devilish functions-the negativity in our own lives or in the lives of others-or we challenge this negativity and deepen our conviction in faith. This difference in resolve determines everything.”

My mission is to help and transform the human spirit. I truly believe our hardships and experiences help us forge our path and, in every obstacle, lies an opportunity for growth and expansion.

Wed love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
WHO WE ARE: Icchi the Cat is a Delhi/Los Angeles based film and design studio that thrives on creativity, chaos and building collaborations! Icchi comes from the Japanese word ‘Ichinen,’ which translates to intention. Icchi the Cat is extremely curious and intentional with her creativity and impact on society.

WHAT WE DO: Our value lies in providing creative freedom to highly skilled and passionate minds for films, brand commercials, photo stories, fashion videos, documentaries, music campaigns, installation art, production design, etc.

WHAT WE HAVE DONE: Icchi is not like other cats. Icchi loves company, and we are proud that over the years, we have experimented with different genres and collaborations with startups, social enterprises, causes, corporates, digital agencies and freelancer gurus. While our grounding comes from the core of the film industry, at Icchi we take risks, push creative boundaries with clients and find novel ways to engage our audience/the users.

HOW WE ARE DIFFERENT: This careful curation ensures high-quality work which is cost-effective and passion-driven. Our specialty lies in telling stories and bringing ideas to life. We work with brands, startups, corporates and branding agencies of NGOs across board.

FUTURE GOALS: We want to continue breaking stereotypes with passionate minds, bridge unique collaborations and build a community for the new age. Our project approach is that a job can be commercially viable along with ensuring a lot of creative value for the artist. We strive to engage artists and technicians beyond commerce.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
My favorite childhood memory is riding on a bicycle with my grandfather navigating us through Delhi traffic. I would sit in front on the body of the bike, body which he had wrapped in a towel to make it comfortable for tiny me. He would pick me up from the bus stop every afternoon after school while my mother would be teaching at the University.

On that bike, I was the happiest kid, I was excited to reach my grandmother’s house, spend the whole afternoon with her there. The afternoons were the most blissful, I’d be playing with my grandparents, their dogs (I considered them mine), fantasizing, daydreaming, making imaginary friends (I was the only child and the eldest grandchild). As a 6-year-old I wanted to be with them forever and would throw a tantrum when my mother came to pick me up after work. Time with my grandparents gave my imagination wings and this is where the seeds of storytelling germinated. Spending my formative years with my grandparents have given me the most beautiful memories to cherish forever and has taught me to imagine wildly.

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Image Credit:

Gregory Keith Metcalf

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