Turns out, Cinderella’s isn’t the only shoe to have spurred a fairytale.
Shoe dealer, Dharavi resident and owner of Shah Shoes, Jameel Shah’s story is no less than a fable either. And although today, he is a celebrity in his own right, 25 years ago, when he fled his home in Darbhanga, Bihar, in search of better opportunities, his reality was far from that of a star’s. “My father was a small farmer. I wanted to study but he didn’t have the wherewithal to support my education, so when I was 12 years old, I left for Delhi with my friends and started making wallets for a living,” he recalls.
It was his training in leatherwork in those initial days that would ultimately help shoot him to fame as a celebrity shoemaker. But the first few years since Shah left Bihar were spent doing odd jobs. Today, Shah refers to top Bollywood celebs such as Hrithik Roshan and Farah Khan as Farah ma’am and Hrithik sir. He makes no bones about the about the fact that he can, in fact, call them on a first-name basis. “Farah ma’am often jokes with me that I’ve made shoes for everyone, including Amir Khan and Priyanka Chopra, but not for her,” Shah chuckles.
Chasing Bollywood Dreams
It makes for a quite a story then, that this mini-star-cum-shoemaker’s journey began with the wish to meet a superstar. “I was just staring at a poster once and wondering what it would be like to see a hero/heroine in person. I didn’t have a fascination for anyone in particular. I just wanted to meet a celebrity,” Shah shares. A musing grew into a burgeoning desire and brought him to Mumbai in 1996, but after a series of unfortunate events (including being duped for money by a friend), he landed up in Bangalore.
You can sense Shah’s candour within minutes of interacting with him. “Mein jiss se bhi baat karta hoon, uss ke saath connection sa ho jaata hai,” he says, self-affirming his chatty nature. And so, it’s hard to imagine a happy-go-lucky man like him crying outside a hotal in Bengaluru, while chomping down on a plate of anda-rice worth Rs 12. But he retells this story with the flair of someone who’s told it many times. “I had gone to Bengaluru looking for the guy who ran away with my money. I had exhausted all my cash and had only Rs 10 left in my wallet. I was remembering God and you know, how they say that if you really wish for something, the universe conspires for you to get it. Just then, I noticed a watchman and he appeared to be from Bihar. So, after I finished my food, I walked up to him and explained my situation. And you wouldn’t believe this, but within 40 minutes I began my first night duty as a watchman,” he shares. Adding that the job finally landed him as a guard of a bungalow, where he befriended a paying guest who introduced him to the world of dance.
Dancing with stars
Today, Shah has won national championships in Latin Dance, participated in non-stop dance parties in Goa and Chennai, and even has a mention in the Limca Book of Records for dancing without stopping for 55 hours. But in 1997, after attending the first class, when Shah began chasing a career as a background dancer in Bollywood – a dream he pinned on his sleeve and returned to Mumbai with, in 2001 – it seemed far-fetched. “If I could become a dancer, I would be able to make money and also, maybe get to meet a celeb. But most dance schools turned me away because I couldn’t afford their classes. So, I pored over newspapers until I discovered Sandip Sir,” Shah remembers, referring to Indian Latin and ballroom dancer and Bollywood choreographer, Sandip Soparrkar.
In his own words, this is the man that changed Shah’s life, considering that it was Soparrkar’s idea that led to the birth of Shah Shoes. “I used to take his classes. One day, he said that we would require dancing shoes, but they were imported and costed Rs 12,000. A big amount in 2004,” Shah shares. “I told Sir that it was out of my budget, which is when he remembered that I know leatherwork and suggested that I tried recreating these shoes because no one was making them in India at the time.” And thus, began his journey.
Shah returned to Dharavi that day and approached a group of leatherworkers, broaching the idea of a shoe company. His uninitiated peers barely had any knowledge of shoes, much less dancing shoes. But Shah and his team worked tirelessly to recreate them, drawing inspiration from pictures and a model shoe Soparrkar had shared. The first model Shah created for Rs 400 was hardly satisfactory. After a lot of back and forth on the quality and design, and nudging from Soparrkar, Shah finally managed to create a prototype that worked. He slowly started supplying shoes to corporates that organise salsa and dance events – they continue to be his primary clients. However, in 2006, Shah got his first big break, when he was asked to supply the shoes for a Bollywood remake of the Hollywood classic Dirty Dancing, called Holiday, directed by Pooja Bhatt.
Following this, in 2007, Shah took a loan from the bank and set-up his cheek-by-jowl kaarkhana, or workshop, in Dharavi, enshrining Shah Shoes in a brick-and-mortar space. Fast forward to present-day and Shah has not only become popular as the celebrity shoemaker from Dharavi who has crafted shoes for top Bollywood stars, like Kajol, Shahrukh Khan, Virat Kohli, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Salman Khan, but has also given Ted Talks and grown to become a major supplier of shoes and props for Bollywood shoots – a business he reveals he grew through contacting dance troupes on Facebook. He calls Hrithik Roshan and Priyanka Chopra his ‘regular clients,’ and has been the go-to shoe supplier for popular dance shows like, Dance India Dance, Jhalak Dhikla Ja Nach Baliye and now Zara Nach Ke Dikha.
If you remember the popular Bollywood track, Chiggy Wiggy from 2009 Akshay-Kumar-starrer Blue, that had us all gasping for breath at Kylie Mongue, who was flown down for the dance video, this will come as a surprise – the shoes you see the top ’90s Australian pop singer dancing in, had been designed by Shah. Today, he charges anything between Rs 1,200 to 1,500 per shoe depending on the model and requirements, and in 2013, Shah Shoes had been estimated at a total net worth of Rs 8 lakhs. A sunshine story, for sure.
It happens only in Dharavi
Now, hurtled back to his agricultural life in Darbhanga due to the loss of economic activity following the outbreak of Coronavirus, Shah feels strong tugs at his heart pulling him back to this city. “I wouldn’t be where I am had it not been for Dharavi. You can be anyone, and still, manage to survive.” Shah isn’t wrong, Dharavi – Asia’s largest slum – is home to thousands of migrants who come to Mumbai looking for jobs and has over the years, grown to become an economic hub bustling with activity and small-scale businesses, ranging from leather and textiles to pottery and goods, plus a fast-growing recycling industry, all of which tantamount to a net output of $600 million to more than $1 billion per year, as per multiple reports.
Shah recalls the day he visited Soparrkar’s house with the first set of shoes he made and walked into a start-studded room, ultimately realising his dream of meeting not one, but four superstars – Sonali Bendre, Amisha Patel, Kajol and Farah Khan. What did it feel like? “See, the thing about being a dreamer is that you never feel like you’ve accomplished all your dreams. Mumbai lets you dream all your life. Yeh sapno ka sheher hai.”
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Images: Shah Shoes