Dancing with stars

From a starry-eyed teenager to now Bollywood’s dance shoemaker, Jameel Shah’s dramatic journey is the stuff of movies.

It is a bit of a cliché to call Mumbai the city of dreams, but then, every once in a while when people like Jameel Shah narrate their stories, you’re reminded of why the metropolis came to be associated with the expression. Mumbai has spun several fairy tales out of ordinary lives and Jameel’s is one of them. In pursuit of a Bollywood-esque life, he came to the big city as a teenager. Little did he know then that his life story would probably resemble a Bollywood movie script.

Born and raised in Darbhanga, Bihar, Jameel moved to Delhi for employment at the age of 13 in the year 1995. As the eldest sibling, he felt the need to add to the family income when his father’s earnings as a farmer were stretching to make ends meet. “One day, during my walks around Connaught Place, I saw these huge Bollywood posters and was mesmerised by them. I liked the way they looked, dressed etc. I told one of my friends that I wanted to see the people on the posters. He told me that they live in Mumbai. That was when the idea of coming to the city was planted in my mind,” says Jameel, who is today a proud owner of a shoe brand that supplies dancing shoes for Bollywood movies and stage musicals. The workshop is located in Dharavi, which is where it all started.

Soul-crushing

Jameel worked in Dharavi in a small workshop that made wallets and handbags. It was going well until one day, a ‘friend’ of his ran away with some money that Jameel had lent him. “I did not want to let go of it, so I followed him to Bengaluru where he was supposed to have gone. My search, however, didn’t yield any result and I ended up spending more money. In fact, I exhausted all the cash I had. I was lucky enough to get a guard’s job at a building there, without an ID. I soon realised that it wasn’t my cup of tea and started driving cars,” he says. By this time he had built a rapport with some of the employers who came to know of his fascination for a glamorous life. “One day, this gentleman I knew took me to a jive and salsa class where Deepak Singh (of Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa fame) was teaching. He saw that my body had a rhythm and asked me to dance with one of the girls. Soon, I was dancing with two girls flanked on either side. You can imagine how a small-town guy would’ve taken to that,” he says with an impish smile.

After making some money, it was time to head back home to Mumbai. “I wanted to pursue dancing after coming to Mumbai, so I approached Sandip Soparrkar, who was the biggest name in the industry then. I told him honestly that I have no money to offer him. Luckily for me, he saw my passion and agreed to train me without a fee.” But the euphoria didn’t last long. “On my very first day there, I felt like the whole thing was a bad idea. The thing is, no one who practises ballroom dancing in Mumbai speaks Hindi — not even Sandip sir, at that time. Gradually, we made a deal that I’d teach him Hindi and he’d help me learn English.”

It was during these dance classes that Jameel noticed the special shoes that his tutor would order from the UK for a whopping 12,000 rupees. “I thought I could make them for a lot cheaper as the workmanship for the shoes is similar to that of making bags. I’d been dancing for about three years then, so I was in a position to wear the shoes and judge their comfort level as well.” Predictably, the first attempt wasn’t a hit. “Sandip sir told me that a whack with these shoes could break a skull. Instead, it should feel like a petal shower. So I got back at it, and after more than 10 failed attempts, I came up with a shoe that could compete with the imported ones.”

Meet the stars

That’s when Soparrkar’s students, along with a few dancers around town, started buying their shoes exclusively from Jameel. Then one day, Jameel was told that he had a meeting with a few people that wanted to buy his shoes. When he reached the meeting room, sitting on the couch were Kajol, Farah Khan and Sonali Bendre. That was the start of Jameel’s starry client list, which today includes the who’s who of the industry. He has supplied shoes to films Dhoom 3, Kites, Mohenjo Daro and high-end stage productions such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin among others. The cost for a pair of Shah Shoes is between Rs 2,000-5,000.

Speaking of a particularly fond interaction with the clients, he recounts, “Aamir Khan sir wanted tap shoes for Dhoom 3. Most stars tell you what they want or how they want it. But he asked what kind of shoes, according to me, would suit his character and frame. It was humbling.” Has he realised his Bollywood dream then? “Certainly. It was never my dream to work in the movies as much as it was to be associated with them — as a dancer or in any other capacity. I still can’t believe that I have meetings with Shah Rukh Khan, or that stars have my number on their phones. It’s through their word of mouth that I get most of my work.”

What’s next? “I want to visit the shoe factory in England that’s one of the biggest players in the market. And I wish to open a store that’s a one-stop shop for everything that a dancer wants or needs. From shoes and bags to costumes and props, it’ll be dancer’s bazaar of sorts. All in good time.”

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