Building dreams

Hafeez Contractor, fondly known as the ‘Slumdog Millionaire architect’, says architecture should be a specialisation

Google ‘Hafeez Contractor’, and predictably, the search engine throws up hundreds of images associated with the “Slumdog Millionaire” architect. One picture that caught my attention, almost instantly, was that of his employees in his office, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder across monitors, on either side of rows of long tables, working on projects that could probably shape architectural wonders of the future. It is in this constantly expanding, jam-packed office that Padma Bhushan Hafeez Contractor is striving to transform the face of architecture, in 21st century India.

An amiable smile and a calm demeanour belies the go-getter that he is, for, what else could prompt an individual to liken work to a golf match? “For me, work is not work, I feel like I am playing a golf match — when you defeat your opponent, you feel happy. Similarly, at work, when I accomplish something better than others, I feel elated. Essentially, I am playing a match and I am glad when I do better than others,” smiles Contractor, who was recently in Chennai’s MARG Institute of Design and Architecture, Swarnabhoomi.

It’s almost like Contractor was intuitively passionate about architecture, from a young age, even before knowing what the term ‘architect’ meant. “In school, I wasn’t a good student. I would end up drawing bikes, guns, and forts during classes, and would be reprimanded by my English teacher. She told me I was a useless student, but one thing she said left me intrigued: “When you grow up, become an architect.” I didn’t even know what the term mean, back then,” he exclaims.

Twist in the tale

What is more surprising is that he was denied the admission form to apply to an architecture course, after scoring a measly 50% in his SSC exams. “I was told I was not qualified to be an architect,” he adds. “I then decided I wanted to join the army or the police force.”

At the behest of his mother, he agreed to complete SSC or graduation before applying to become a police officer, and began going to an architect’s office for tuition. It was there that the seeds for his success were sown. “There, I saw a man working on some advance drawing — window detail. I observed him for a while and told him that his version of the window wouldn’t open. Naturally, he was annoyed, and when his boss came, the latter asked me to draw the same. I did so, and he was impressed. He told me to instantly drop whatever I was doing and pursue architecture,” he reminisces. “When I told him that I was not given a form, he called the President of the Indian Institute of Architects and got me a form. Consequently, I was allowed to write the entrance exam, scored an A+, and the rest fell in place. From being an abomination of a student, I aced the Maharashtra technical board exams, became a Tata scholar, and pursued my postgraduation at Columbia University, the U.S.”

Memorable moment

Contractor recalls how he was all set to go home for a few days, while studying at Columbia, and in the last minute, his professor gave the class an assignment, asking students to submit it early next morning. When Hafeez told his teacher he wouldn’t be able to do it, he was surprised to find his teacher understanding, but disappointed that he would be graded zero. “When I called him out on the unfairness of it all, he said that it was absolutely fair as, if this were to occur in an office atmosphere, I wouldn’t get the job if I didn’t turn up, and similarly, I couldn’t expect to be graded for an assignment I did not submit, ” he adds.

Despite experiencing a taste of the American Dream, what made him return to India? “This is an oft-asked question,” he admits, laughing. “America is such a powerful and attractive country that my resolve to return would have weakened, had I remained there longer than necessary. Also, my love for my country was great. So, I caught a flight the same night I graduated,” elaborates Contractor.

“I was at a restaurant when I saw Narayana Moorthy seated there, unassuming as ever. I requested him to take a look at my work and expressed a desire to work for him. Soon after, my dream came true,” says Contractor. “I have great respect for him as he untiringly promotes everything Indian. He is a swift decision-maker, and it was an unforgettable experience working with him.”

Judicious use

The man behind some of India’s glitziest buildings has also played an instrumental role in re-developing Mumbai’s slums. “I feel really sorry when I see some people sleeping on the streets, and kids eating on the streets. So, my dream is a house for every Indian. In fact, ever since I started working, this has been my dream. I wanted to construct houses in the budget of ₹1 lakh, but I was not successful. At the moment, we are working on a housing scheme for the government where we are pitching homes ranging from ₹12-13 lakhs. We have received support ever since we started slum re-development and today, lakhs of people have got free houses with improved sanitation,” he says.

While Indian architecture has evolved tremendously, Contractor urges people to save every sq. inch, and use material judiciously. “Also, architecture, as education, should be made into a specialisation. The real need today is to have proper people for proper subjects,” he insists, as he signs off.

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