Entering Y Productions’ workspace in District 19, I am greeted by a tall woman wearing a plain black shalwar kurta and rather fashionable, thick-framed glasses, and a smartphone in her hand. In other words, I have just met Ayesha Jalil.
Together we head for District 19’s café. This is Karachi and the temperature is 35 degrees, but thankfully, there is a wall-mounted fan above us. I am a tad nervous, because she is a renowned personality in the ad industry, with over 20 years’ experience under her belt, and I am not sure how formal or informal our conversation will turn out to be. However, I am soon put at ease by Jalil’s frankness and chill demeanour. She convinces me to have a cup of coffee (“Oh come on, just have some; it’s really good here,”) and we then dive into the subject at hand: “Who is Ayesha Jalil?”
When I ask if she would prefer to start the conversation or if should I ask her specific questions, she opts for the latter – the first hint I get during our conversation is that she is perhaps fundamentally a shy person.
I begin by asking what she was like as a young woman and what led her to a career in advertising. She emphasises that from an early age, her mother advised her to be independent – financially and otherwise. Advice that remains of prime importance. She says she has never had to compromise or depend on other people for money or anything else. “Even when I go out to meet friends, I take my own car so that when I am ready to go, I am not dependent on anyone else.”
Not only is she content to live life on her own terms, she genuinely does not care about ‘log kya kahen gay’, especially because I find out that she is a single mom of a 12-year-old adopted daughter. She says that when she was considering the adoption, people around her had a lot to say, including the fact that she was “shutting down her life” as adopting a child would limit her choices in terms of finding a future partner. However, to her mind “if I find the right person, well then… ‘buy one get one free!’ Who cares what people think?”
Her ambition to be independent led her to “dump college” and get a job as a trainee copywriter at JWT “at the ripe age of 19.” She laughs as she remembers that for the first nine months her monthly salary was just Rs 1,200. She also recalls the mentors who encouraged her in her chosen path; the names include Anwar Rammal, Khalid Rauf, Nabila, Shahnoor and Zohra Yusuf.
In fact, her first venture into directing a commercial was assigned to her by Shahnoor. It was for Brite washing powder and shot on 35mm film (“at the time it was a big deal”). She was very hesitant to take on the project due to her lack of experience, but Shahnoor insisted she would manage – and she did.
After working in different positions and for different ad agencies, including Spectrum, Bond Advertising and JWT for over a decade, in 1998 she decided to set up her own company (she first called it Ayesha Jalil). After managing as a onewoman show, she then hired an accountant and later a small team, which was when the name Y Productions came into being.
When I ask her to describe what her employees think of her, she replies “as a hard ass. My team either stays with me for three months or for years and years.” She adds that her ambition is to “hand over the knowledge and the craft” to upcoming directors by giving them her input and then “letting them fly.”
As we speak I have the impression that she has a reputation of being someone you do not mess with. “When I started out, I was particular about everything, because I felt I needed to prove something. I was very tense on set and when a woman screams on set (or anywhere for that matter) it always sounds shriller than if a man does the same thing. Hence, I earned the reputation of being difficult to work with.”
To be fair, she did take a step back when one day she heard herself screaming on set and decided not to be that person. I am about to say that had she been a man, no one would have a problem, when she adds that her prior reputation works well for her. “People now know I can tilt,” she chuckles. “Now, I am more confident of my abilities and don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Now when I lose it, I lose it with control. It is a strategy.” The “strategy” includes a skill she learnt during a course in the US; if you have a celebrity on set, give them the whole nine yards (“the limo, the AC, anything”), but when they come on set, “set up a mock scolding with one of your people and then give it to them in front of the celebrity, so they know who the boss is. And it works.”
When I ask her about the commercials she worked on in her career, she is hesitant to answer. This is the second hint I get that although she may be frank about herself as an individual, she is quite reticent about talking about her career milestones. I, nevertheless, prod further and she mentions a probono initiative by Y Productions called Humara Karachi, aimed at showcasing Karachi in a positive light. “There was a lot of heart to that film – it is one of my key projects.” She has also worked on major brands, including Knorr (she created the Knorr Boriat Busters), Dettol, Sunsilk and Lifebuoy shampoo.
As a director, she believes the industry needs to go back to basics and understand that ads need to communicate with their audience. “More than using different angles and scenic locations, there must be an objective; for example, getting into the audiences’ mind.” For her, framing and lighting are secondary. She gets the fact that often the more established companies are limited by their brand policies and smaller companies have more flexibility. Nevertheless, in her view “there are ways around restrictions. If a client asks for a red option, I will do the red as well as a blue-tinted option. We push the envelope wherever we can.”
Jalil now wants to focus on writing and making a featurelength film – if she finds the time and the right writers. She sees the film as most likely inspired by one of the several romantic comedies she loves to watch, except that the narrative will be crisper. “I want to make something like Queen – a film with a strong plot but with humour which everyone will want to watch. It should leave the audience thinking a bit.”
When she is not in her director’s chair, she delves into other projects. She launched a local children’s channel called Y Kids, after becoming irritated by the international content her daughter would watch as a toddler. “Instead of kids watching Peppa Pig say things like (she puts on a British accent) ‘in the rain you need to wear boots’, we want Y Kids to provide entertainment along with lessons relevant to the society we live in. At the moment Y Kids is on YouTube, but needs more work and funding.”
During Covid-19, Jalil started a Facebook group called LEAD – Platform to Connect Creatives, which now has over 15,000 members. She also started Karachi One2One Concierge, a Facebook group where people can ask questions about where to find the things they are looking for. “Basically it is a peer-to-peer answering service for everyday questions. It shows how willing people are to help each other.”
When not in productive mode, she loves to travel and has become “that person” people go to for travel advice. Her alltime favourite destinations are Paris (“I love walking there and the city’s vibe”) and London, although her second home is Thailand (Bangkok and Phuket). Not surprisingly, she manages a small travel group called Travel-etc.pk.
Thinking she will reply “travel the world” when I ask what she would ideally like to do, she pauses and then reels off a list: “Make a lot of money so that I can go on a six- to12-month sabbatical. Live in a villa in Tuscany. Write and direct my film. Create apps for the Facebook groups I manage. Oh! I would also love to go back to university and hone my skills as a filmmaker.”
Clearly, if there were more than 24 hours in the day, Ayesha Jalil would have no problems filling all of them purposely.