The first time Jameel Shah saw a room full of people dancing Latin American salsa, he was paralyzed by the beauty of it.
“I was hypnotized. I was entranced.” As he attempts to describe that moment, his hands rise instinctively and clasp those of an imaginary partner. “I’d never seen anything like it in my life.”
Indeed beauty and joy had been rather scarce in Mr. Shah’s short life. The oldest of eight children, he left his village in impoverished Bihar in the north of India at 14. His parents, struggling farmers, were relieved to have one less mouth to feed. He made his way, alone, to Mumbai and found a menial job in a stinking, sun-baked tannery in Dharavi, Asia’s most notorious slum. No one asked any questions about his age.
Some 15 years on, he sits in a small but well-kept Dharavi house surrounded by scraps of silk and diamante buckles and an overworked BlackBerry – the evidence of his empire. Mr. Shah is, today, the shoemaker to le tout Bollywood. Dimpled, tousle-haired and gracious, he is happy to tell how it all came to be – he just has to get back to a starlet or two on Facebook and deal with an order from Italy first.
The tale goes like this. His first five years in Dharavi were brutal. “I used to cry,” he recalls. “I was just a kid. In the village I’d been free to go wherever I wanted, to do what I wanted. Now I was working six days a week, 12 hours a day.” At night, he slept on a mat in the leatherworks. But he felt pleased enough with the $25 he earned each month, and he saved a bit.
Then he lent money to a friend, the friend disappeared, Mr. Shah followed him to Bangalore and wound up working as a security guard at the house of some rich people – it’s the sort of story that those living on the economic margins often have to tell. In Bangalore, the middleman who found him the job never delivered Mr. Shah’s salary. One day, the homeowner took pity on him.
“He told me to put on my good clothes and he’d take me somewhere.” Somewhere was that first dance class, where Mr. Shah had a brief vision of a life he could barely fathom. When the class was over, he begged the instructor to trade work for classes, but the man sent him away, saying, not unkindly, that the skinny Bihari boy didn’t belong there.
So Mr. Shah returned to Dharavi and the tannery. Then one day he saw an ad for a new dance studio being opened by the Bollywood legend Sandip Soparrkar.
Mr. Shah made his way to the home of the country’s most renowned dance teacher, and once again, he pitched free labour in exchange for dance lessons. Charmed by this unlikely student, Mr. Soparrkar let him enroll.
The classes were in English, which Mr. Shah didn’t speak, but he faked it. And he rose quickly through the levels of classes – rumba was his favourite – dancing day after day, for hours.
One day, he heard Mr. Soparrkar complaining: A long overdue box of dancing shoes, ordered from London, had not arrived. Why London, the student asked his teacher. Because in London they make the best shoes, Mr. Soparrkar explained.
Mr. Shah, so used to leather work, offered to try to make a pair. “I laughed – I thought he was pulling a fast one,” Mr. Soparrkar recalled. “There are so many shoe companies in the country and nobody has made a good pair. How could he?” But he gave Mr. Shah an old pair of shoes to copy.
The student was back in 10 days with shoes in hand. “They were horrible,” Mr. Soparrkar said. “If I hit somebody with this shoe that person will die – it’s so hard.”
Mr. Shah was devastated. He’d spent his precious savings on leather for the shoes. But he went away and tried again. It took 14 pairs to get it right; Mr. Soparrkar says 25. “One day he came up with a pair that was so wonderful,” the teacher said. “I said to him, I have worn shoes of all possible dance companies in the world, and this feels better.” Thus was born Shah Shoes, which today exports to Dubai, Venezuela, Ireland and anywhere else where there are dancers in the know.
“It used to be that if a friend of an Indian dancer was going abroad, you would say, ‘Bring me back two pairs of shoes,’” Mr. Shah said modestly. “Now if you are a dancer from outside India and you know someone going to India, you say, ‘Bring me two pairs of shoes.’ Now I have become the celebrity shoemaker.”
He began by supplying his fellow students. Then he made a pair for a prominent actress. She sent them to friends; directors began to call. The Australian pop star Kylie Minogue came to town on tour and heard about him. He went to her hotel with a backpack stuffed with shoes. Security wouldn’t let him in but finally agreed to take her the shoes. She soon appeared at the door asking to see the shoemaker. She bought eight pairs.
Today Shah Shoes produces about 150 pairs each month – flamenco, tap, salsa and more. Half are exported. But Mr. Shah still runs it all from a house in a fetid Dharavi alley barely wider than his shoulders. Here he can keep costs down. There’s plenty of cheap labour and he can get everything he needs in the vicinity of the slum sprawl.
Five years ago, he used a bank loan to buy this piece of land, the size of a typical Canadian laundry room, and put up a three-story cement building. The middle floor has been partitioned horizontally so that two levels of men sitting cross-legged fit into it. Six of them labour with small sharp blades and pots of glue, shaping satin and suede around the moulds Mr. Shah makes to measure.
When orders come in, he scrutinizes them on the screen of his BlackBerry, then sends a recently recruited younger brother to a market across the highway for fabric, which Mr. Shah eyeballs to find the closest colour match.
The imported shoes Mr. Soparrkar used to buy cost the equivalent of $240 a pair, or what Mr. Shah earned in a year. Today, Mr. Shah sells his for between $30 and $40; they are proudly stamped “Made in India” in gold. He hopes to reach a production level of 1,000 shoes a month, with a store of his own.
“Once you wear his shoes you will not wear any other shoes,” the dance guru says. “I don’t think it’s because of me – I think he came to Bombay because he had to be a shoe star and we are just the medium to take him there.”
Mr. Shah, meanwhile, has not let his life as a burgeoning tycoon distract him from his first love: He still dances, at least once a week. And of all his recent achievements, it’s the recent silver medal in a national contest of which he is most proud. “Of course I make the best shoes,” he says. “Because I’m a dancer.”