In a small 100-square-foot room in a dirt-strewn alley in Dharavi, workers sit cheek by jowl, bent over satin scraps and diamante buckles. Above them is a cluttered attic where more workers craft leather on moulds. Given the infamous living conditions in Asia's largest slum, it’s hard to imagine that their creations – dancing shoes – will soon adorn the feet of the rich and famous.
The team is led by Jameel Shah, a man whose life has played out like a rags-to-riches Bollywood script. Born in Doghra, a small village in Bihar, he was one of nine siblings in a low-income farming family.
“We were so poor that we struggled to have a decent meal or buy a pen to write our notes. We could not afford a school, so we went to learn in a local mosque,” he tells The National.
In 1996, at the age of 10, Shah ran away from home and took a train to Delhi, in the hope of making a living. He found work through friends in a company making leather wallets, but he heard from people that Mumbai was the place to make your fortune.
He was also awed by the gargantuan Bollywood posters that he saw in places such as Connaught Place – Delhi’s commercial centre – and, like many young Indian boys, had dreams of entering the film industry, dressing well and having a good lifestyle.
He arrived in Mumbai with stars in his eyes and, in 1997, found work in a power loom in the district of Bhiwandi before moving to Dharavi to work in another company making leather goods.
As fate would have it, Shah lost all his savings when he was tricked by one of his colleagues, who escaped with his money to Bengaluru. Shah chased him to the South Indian city, but could not find him and had to work as a security guard for two years before he could make enough money to return to Mumbai. It was in Bengaluru that he first joined Latin dance classes and found his mojo.
Back in Mumbai, his real turning point came when he went to choreographer Sandip Soparrkar, a well-known dance artist, and told him his story and desire to pursue dance, though he could not afford the fees. His sincerity made an impression, and Soparkar allowed him to join his Latin ballroom dancing classes for free.
Soon Shah was entering – and winning – competitions. “I was part of the Limca Book of Records [in India] in 2004 for dancing non-stop for 55 hours and 20 minutes in Goa,” he says.
He found that most of the dancing shoes, which were customised, came from abroad, usually from London. They were also expensive, costing upwards of 12,000 Indian rupees (about $160).
Motivated by Soparrkar, Shah tried to replicate those shoes and through trial and error soon found that he could make good-quality dancing shoes thanks to the skills he picked up from the leather industry. To make ends meet, he would sell his creations to students in the dance classes who could not afford the foreign-made shoes.
His first big order came with the 2006 Bollywood film Holiday, a remake of the Hollywood classic Dirty Dancing. It was just the break he needed.
He quit his job in 2007 and, with a small bank loan, started Shah Shoes with two assistants. The company now makes shoes for celebrities, corporate balls, dance shows and TV reality shows.
“It was just by word of mouth. I did not advertise anywhere. It helped that I was part of the dancing community,” Shah says proudly.
“Dancing shoes are special. They have to be lightweight and at the same time sturdy and flexible, absorb sweat, give a firm grip and arch support.
“Dancers don’t have the luxury of kicking off their shoes for some time, so they have to be engineered properly so that they don’t cause back or knee pain,” he explains.
It takes Shah and his team about 15 days to craft a pair of dancing shoes and they cost upwards of 4,000 rupees a pair. Today, his clients include Bollywood stars Hrithik Roshan, Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt, as well as cricketer MS Dhoni.
“Kylie Minogue was in Mumbai and wanted to buy my shoes. It was an honour to craft eight pairs for her,” he says, showing off a photo taken with the Australian singer.
Shah makes bespoke shoes for every genre of dance, from salsa and tap dancing to flamenco, ballet and jazz dancing. He now pays for his siblings’ education, has bought a farm for his father and dreams of opening a one-stop dance store that can supply everything from costumes to footwear.
“I have done everything in my life, from being a security guard to selling mobile covers in stations. But I have always wanted to pursue my dreams and do better,” he says. “What makes me happy today is making the best dancing shoes.”