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How this Dharavi garment worker became a celebrity shoemaker

Last updated on: April 1, 2013 19:50 IST

How this Dharavi garment worker became a celebrity shoemaker

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Mitali Saran


Jameel Shah, who was a minor worker in a garment factory, now makes shoes for Kajol, Abhishek Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Ranbir Kapoor and international stars like Kylie Minogue.

There are good arguments for and against throwing Sanjay Dutt in the clink for possessing weapons. But why the big fuss about Sanjay Dutt in the first place?

That's the power of movies, and movie stars. They inspire people to yearn and dream, and to do amazing things. They move people.

That puts me in mind of a young man named Jameel Shah. I think about him three times a week anyway, when I strap on my tango shoes, but that's with gratitude for his shoe-making skills. This week I've been remembering his story.

A small backgrounder: anyone who practises a dance form knows that a good pair of shoes is critical. They must be lightweight, flexible, secure around the toes and ankles, with strong heels and suede soles.

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Image: Celebrity shoemaker Jameel Shah.
Photographs: Courtesy, Jameel Shah
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Padding in the toes helps. A good pair of dance shoes makes the difference between a magical evening and a miserable one, and it's very hard to find a good pair in India.

Mr Shah is the eldest of eight kids born to poor farmers in Bihar. He hopped on a train to Delhi when he was barely a teenager, and worked in a bag and wallet manufacturing company.

He spent his spare time watching Bollywood movies with his roommates, and developed a fierce dream: to meet the most famous film stars in Bollywood, and become a dance choreographer in the industry.

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Image: Shah wanted to become a choreographer.
Photographs: Reuters
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None of this was going to happen in Delhi, so he got on another train to Bombay and wound up in the throbbing hub of enterprise that is Dharavi.

Relatives there found him a job in a garments factory. He began to work towards earning enough money to hang out in five star hotels. This, consensus felt, was where movie stars could be found.

Then disaster struck - a colleague to whom he had loaned Rs 2,000 decamped with all the money. Young Mr Shah chased him to Bangalore, but then heard that the man had gone to Delhi.

Too broke to follow, he found himself homeless in a new city. He had to start all over again.

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Image: A view of Dharavi, Asia's biggest shantytown.
Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters
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A lesser man might have given up, but Mr Shah found a job as a night watchman at an apartment building. He was well-liked. One evening, one of the occupants took him to a salsa workshop.

Just like that, he knew that he belonged in a dance class - except that he couldn't afford the fees. Knowing that dancing would be an excellent way to meet Bollywood stars, he moved back to Bombay.

While working, he looked for dance schools he could afford. It was an ad for Sandeep Soparrkar's classes that changed his life - he still couldn't afford the fees, but Mr Soparrkar recognised his dedication and took him on as a trainee for free. He was finally in dance school, training and earning to meet Bollywood stars.

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Image: Sandip Soparrkar and Jesse Randhawa.
Photographs: Kind Courtesy, Sandip Soparrkar's Ballroom Studio
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How this Dharavi garment worker became a celebrity shoemaker

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But something else also happened. His dance teacher needed shoes - a very expensive pair he'd ordered from London hadn't arrived. They cost Rs 12,000.

Mr Shah offered to try his hand at making a pair, drawing on his experience in the garments factory. He borrowed an old pair of Mr Soparrkar's shoes, did a little homework and research, and made a pair of shoes with materials sourced mostly within Dharavi.

Mr Soparrkar said they were too stiff. He tried again, but those weren't good enough either. Thirteen attempts were rejected. But the fourteenth pair of shoes that Mr Shah made, Mr Soparrkar loved.

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Image: Soparrkar approved the shoes Shah made after rejecting them for 13 times.
Photographs: Marcos Brindicci/Reuters
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They cost Rs 2,000. Mr Shah made 12 pairs for his dance teacher and, gradually, established a shoemaking business.

And then one day his phone rang, and it was Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra. She wanted to order two pairs of shoes. For the little Bihari boy, a dream had come true.

Since then Mr Shah has made shoes for Bollywood stars like Kajol, Abhishek Bachchan, and Hrithik Roshan, and international stars like Kylie Minogue. Yesterday he was in Delhi to measure actor Ranbir Kapoor's feet.

Mr Shah works out of a 120 sq ft plot in Dharavi, with eight people, selling anywhere between 100 and 500 pairs of shoes a month for individuals and reality shows.

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Image: Priyanka Chopra.
Photographs: Thomas Peter/Reuters
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His turnover is Rs 7-10 lakh a year. His shoes, stamped "Made in India", are found in Canada, Australia, Dubai and Italy. He has less time for dance, now, but still loves to rumba and cha-cha-cha.

I know that my Shah Shoes are 10 times more comfortable than my fancy Comme Il Faut pair from Europe, and 10 times cheaper.

That's the power of the movies.

PS: I asked Mr Shah his opinion of the Sanjay Dutt case. He said he thought the offence should have been punished at the time; but to serve a sentence now, after all these years, seems wrong.


Image: Sanjay Dutt.
Photographs: Reuters
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