Shoemaker to the stars

12-10-2017

A small single-storey house that doubles up as a workshop; shoemaker DJS Kumar’s workspace off Vadapalani is a far cry from the boutiques of Louis Vuitton or Salvatore Ferragamo. Yet his clientele would be the envy of any French or Italian fashion major. Having sold his handcrafted leather footwear to the likes of MGR, NT Rama Rao and Jayalalithaa, Kumar’s shoes have for long strutted the corridors of power.

 

 

A second generation cobbler, the 61-year-old has been making shoes since he was in Class VII. “My father, DK Jayaram, used to work in Salem’s Modern Theatres but he migrated to Madras in the early 50s. Once he did, he came to be known for his intricate work and designs in leather. He quickly became the go-to guy for any unusual designs required for cinema.”

Apart from shoes, his work included designing armour, cuffs, boots and belts... all made using leather. “If it was a historical or a social film, chances are that our products were used in it.”

From MGR’s Ayirathil Oruvan, Sivaji’s Karnan, Kamal Haasan’s Aboorva Sagodargal, Rajini’s Baasha to Vijay’s Velayudham, Kumar’s work has received significant screen time. And it’s not limited to Tamil cinema. They have also been featured in other language projects such as Dilip Kumar’s Ram Aur Shyam, Mammootty’s Pazhasi Raja, NTR’s Major Chandrakanth and Rajkumar’s Sri Krishnadevaraya.

 

Meet Kumar - shoe designer for South’s biggest superstars and politicians
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Beyond cinema

Impressed by his work, Kumar also went on to become the personal shoemaker for MGR and Sivaji. “I was called frequently whenever they wanted shoes. I have worked on dozens of special footwear depending on the stars’ requirements,” reminisces Kumar, displaying a piece of paper on which he had once carefully marked out the outline of Sivaji’s foot.

The shoemaker fondly recalls his association with the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who is said to have had a huge collection of footwear. “People assume that she bought all those after she became the CM. But that’s not true. Even when she was an actress, she had a fascination for them,” he insists, “I still remember how she used to send me her order written on a white slip of paper. ‘12 pairs in white, 8 pairs in black,’ she would write in her beautiful handwriting and always in capital letters.” A minimum order would be for 20 pairs, because “she didn’t like to use them for too long.”

 

 

 

Built to last

What set Kumar apart, he says, is how durable his shoes were. “There is a general assumption that what we make for use in films are flimsy. But my father used to make footwear that lasted, and I too believe in that motto. While stars would first wear our work for a scene, they’d come back to us later to order for their personal use because my shoes were that comfortable.”

Despite his list of illustrious patrons, Kumar has mulled quitting the film industry many a time. “I’ve been cheated on a number of occasions,” he fumes, “Production set assistants would get one pair made from me and then copy that design using cheaper materials like rexine.” All these instances made him disillusioned with the industry. “But I don’t think I can ever quit... I want my father’s art form to live on.”

He’s ensuring it does, even as he shows us his latest work — the footwear that Rajinikanth wears in upcoming film Kaala. Life is a little easier for Kumar these days with help coming from his son Satish, who recently quit his lucrative IT job to join the profession. “What I’ve learnt in my lifetime doesn’t have to end with me.”

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