We had the good fortune of connecting with Kajri Akhtar and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kajri, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
My journey of starting Icchi the Cat began with my love of images, design, and lighting. I started as a photographer in my hometown New Delhi before moving into cinematography. At 21, I moved to Mumbai, better known as “Bollywood”, where I started working as a camera assistant. Now I was assisting the top Directors of Photography in Bollywood – a dream! While I loved being part of the hustle on set, I found it challenging being the only woman in the camera department.
After a solid four years of many 14-hour shifts, I found myself accepting projects I didn’t enjoy watching, and my learning hit a plateau. Navigating a space of male dominance, where my male peers were given preference as “smart” while I was deemed “too smart for my own good” (for being focused on the job and not schmoozing the male seniors), I felt my creativity going to waste. Bollywood was not at all how I envisioned it: full of expression, freedom, and happiness/
Those years became an impetus to start creating a space for myself and others like me. I saved up money, designed and built a studio space, and launched my very own production company. Icchi the Cat would go on to produce ad campaigns, visual art, commercials, and films where artists, technicians, and clients worked in unison and were not dominated by existing structures. I realized both men and women needed to feel nurtured, free, and safe while creating commercially viable work/
I grew up and lived in India for 30 years, and while my time there was beautiful in every way, I needed to step away to grow. My next adventure was moving to Los Angeles. It was a terrifying risk that has proven to be enriching in more ways than one. I studied Producing and Development at one of the best schools in the world, UCLA, and expanded professionally.
Even in the most developed country inequality and discrimination still exists. I want to play a role in bridging that gap. I am hopeful and enthusiastic as America has proven to be a great training ground where I find myself constantly evolving with freedom!
Please tell us more about your work. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally? Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way? What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
My best friend jokes with me that when someone tells me I can’t do something, that’s my cue to prove them wrong and do it even better. As a child, when I would be told “girls don’t do this” or “that’s only for boys” I would jump right in and want to prove them wrong.
That mentality has helped me chart out my own path in various departments in film and TV production. For example, every time I face an unexpected roadblock, I force myself to take on a different role such as director’s assistant, content/scriptwriter, or production coordinator that challenge me. I have worked on exciting projects with BMW, Google, and Huawei. I became the first female cinematographer in India to shoot inside a nuclear power plant (Tarapore, Maharashtra) for National Geographic’s Inside Series. However, projects featuring women’s voices are the closest to my heart. For instance, a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) project on women’s reproductive rights was life-altering. Imagine shooting in one of the poorest states in India, documenting the abysmal state of healthcare where malnourished women were giving birth to mostly stillborn babies. Some that lived had life-threatening diseases and others survived only a few hours. As I filmed this horror, I realized my power lies in telling their story the best way I could.
The lockdown opened a door to learning screenwriting. And now I work in content and script development where my goal is to develop and produce content from all over the world. I have also been working on commercials in LA as well as India. But, moving forward, I am stoked to be directing for the first time – a music video and a short film. So, stay tuned for something exciting!
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
So, here’s a list of my current favorites:
The Comedy Store – Need I say more? I cannot wait for it to re-open! But all the others below are open for business!
The Fig, Venice. This spot is on the boardwalk and has a clear view of the beach and the ocean. Sometimes there’s live music in the evenings too!
Paradise Cove Beach – For a perfect beach day – park, buy a drink, get your validation and go sit on the secluded beach all day long. You will have to walk over some rocks to get there, but it is a great spot for summer days.
Norah, West Hollywood – great fine dining experience in the heart of LA. Great ambiance, outdoor patio, and cocktails. The food was also scrumptious!
Conservatory, West Hollywood – The food is amazing! Just order a bunch of appetizers for the table and some cocktails.
Hamburger Mary, West Hollywood – right across the road from Conservatory is a bar that is known for its drag shows! We had a blast here with friends who were visiting from out of town.
The Wellesbourne, Culver City – My favorite bar. It’s quaint and so fun. The cocktails are delicious and the new menu is really delicious.
The Nickel Mine & Busby’s- These neighborhood sports bars top my list of favorites. Best chicken wings and great beers. Also, they have board games to make your time more exciting.
1986 Taco’s, Westwood – some of the best Mexican food I have eaten in LA. Super flavorful, and the sauces are to die for.
Malibu Creek State Park – This is the spot for a night of stargazing, watching meteor showers, and full/super moons. Just find a spot away from the lights and stargaze!
During the lockdown, I started playing disc golf, and it’s so exciting to be walking outdoors in the sun and tossing discs while sipping on some craft beers (that’s what my friends and I do on a beautiful clear sunny day). My favorite spots are:
Oak Grove Disc Golf Course – This spot is beautiful and the terrain changes quite dramatically. You can spot the NASA building on the mountains and occasionally you may have to step aside for a horse that sneaks up casually trotting behind you, as this park is open for cycling and horse riding.
Dodger’s Stadium Disc Golf Course – This place has the most amazing scenic views of LA and dynamic terrain. You can hike and toss discs at the same time!
I have so many more on my list, but I think I will stop for now!
Alright, so let’s jump right in! The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So, is there a person, group, organization, book, etc. that you want to dedicate your shoutout to? Who else deserves a little credit and recognition in your story?
I cannot say I have had just one mentor in my life, but life itself has been my mentor. Every person, event, and obstacle has had an effect on my journey, as is true for most of us I feel.
My story is definitely unique – coming from an unusual family set up, being raised by my single mother, and choosing to tread into a career unexplored by anyone I knew. I had to make it on my own, with no one mentor or guru by my side. As a self-taught photographer with limited resources, I didn’t have access to the family finances or industry/network connections many of my peers had. I appreciate how my mother stood by me amid the risks I took, and it is her belief, encouragement, and guidance that keeps me grounded every day.
At many points in my life, I have felt that I was letting go of the progress I had made and landed at a crossroad. I still have doubts sometimes, and question myself – am I moving backward? But the choice always presents itself as – to either be part of the tide or to create one? During these confusing times, my practice of Nichiren Buddhism and the Soka Gakkai emerge as my pillar of strength and help me navigate the impossible.
Icchi the Cat became a testament to this growth. I no longer look back at the what-ifs, but instead choose to look to the what now! Similarly, Icchi the Cat is an ever-evolving brand, thriving on ideas that are adventurous, fun, intentional, and impactful.
Gregory Keith Metcalf and Shane Sigler