This is a quintessential ‘boy from a remote village makes it big in Maximum City’ story. In 1996, Jameel Shah set foot in Mumbai with just Rs 100 in his pocket, a desire to meet Hindi movie actors and a hope to end his family’s financial problems.
One slippery journey, Latin dance classes and an accidental shoemaking opportunity later, Jameel became a sought after shoemaker in the glam industry. His 120-square-foot factory in the cramped bylanes of Dharavi is perpetually flooded with actors, assistant directors to professional dancers and choreographers.
From Katrina Kaif’s thigh-high leather boots in Dhoom 3 (2013) to Kylie Minogue’s shoes in Blue (2009), Jameel has designed comfortable, flexible and chic footwear for several celebrities.
The Better India spoke to the self-made entrepreneur who has worked as a doorkeeper, a factory worker and a security guard before turning his skills into an opportunity of a lifetime.
‘My ignorance got me to Mumbai’
Jameel, who was born in Bihar’s Darbhanga district, is the eldest of his seven siblings. His parents were farm labourers who worked for almost 12 hours to fend for the family. Poverty didn’t allow him to get formal schooling so he joined a local madrasa.
“With so many members in the house, it was difficult for my parents to arrange two meals a day. The only reason I dropped out after class 5 is to earn money. At 12, I moved to Delhi along with other migrant workers from my village. I started working on a leather ternary. I barely made Rs 500 from making wallets and purses,” he says.
A year later, he moved to Mumbai for better financial opportunities, “Another incentive was to meet Bollywood actors. I was naive to think actors take a stroll on roads or shop in markets. But I guess this ignorance worked in my favour for it got me to Mumbai,” he adds.
He took up a job at Dharavi’s leather market which happens to generate livelihood for the majority of the families living there. Two years later, his world turned topsy turvy when a co-worker’s brother ran away with his savings worth Rs 25,000 after promising to introduce him to actors in 1998. Jameel chased the thief all the way to Bengaluru only to realise the culprit wasn’t anywhere to be found. He then took up odd jobs like being a driver and a watchman, and slowly started saving money again.
It was here where Jameel was introduced to the world of dancing. His employer sponsored his fees for a two-day dancing workshop. That’s when he decided to become a background dancer to finally meet celebrities.
The Accidental Shoemaker
In 2000, Jameel returned to Mumbai and resumed his job at the leather unit. Simultaneously, he pursued his dancing dream and joined Bollywood choreographer Sandip Soparrkar’s dance classes. Although his fees were waived due to his keen interest, it was mandatory to use dancing shoes. Majority of the students imported them from London, which cost around Rs 10,000. Since Jameel didn’t have that kind of money, he studied the shoes and made his own pair.
“The first sample was nowhere close to the quality of the imported shoes. But the incident gave birth to my shoe venture. I saw a demand for such shoes but I wanted to provide them at affordable rates,” says Jameel.
For the next five years, Jameel studied the shoes and made innumerable samples after his work hours. He interacted with professional shoemakers, dancers and manufacturers of raw materials like leather to understand the nuances of shoemaking.
“Dancing shoes should absorb sweat and must be flexible enough to accommodate complicated moves while also providing a good grip. I made a breakthrough in 2005 when Sandip sir’s students purchased shoes from me. Their encouraging feedback and sir’s valuable guidance pushed me to take a business loan and start ‘Shah Shoes’,” shares Jameel.
Word of mouth publicity helped Jameel bag his first big order in 2006 for the cast of Holiday, a Bollywood remake of Dirty Dancing (1987). The sale attracted more clients and by next year he was designing shoes for 10 clients a month.
With time, he scaled his manufacturing and today he makes shoes for all types of dances like belly dancing, jazz, salsa, latin dancing, flamingo and tap dancing. Every month, the production touches 200 shoes, most of which are supplied to dancers and reality shows. The price range starts from Rs 2,000.
Dreams do come true
After watching his parents toil under the sun as farm labourers for years, Jameel always dreamt of purchasing farmland for his parents. So it’s not surprising that the first thing he did after saving enough was to fulfil his dream.
“I remember we were searching for a fertile plot for days and when we finally booked it, I had tears of joy. I have also purchased my own house in this dreamy city,” says Jameel.
That said, Jameel had his fair share of challenges — from competitors stealing his business, to delayed payments and last minute order cancellations. He says it is his honesty and the desire to make the best shoes that keeps him going.
“Don’t be afraid to enter India’s vast pool of opportunities. You may not have a safety net but your resilience and creativity will help you survive,” Jameel signs off.
Edited by Yoshita Rao