“Sit,” instructs Chenthu Mohan. His canine friend Scooby obeys. Similarly, a bunch of dogs dutifully listen to whatever Chenthu says. It could be ‘come’, ‘stand’, ‘shake hands’, ‘jump’. Chenthu is one of the most sought-after dog trainers in Tamil cinema. In his words, he provides animal “actors” for the Tamil film industry. He tames horses, dogs and birds. “Patience and perceptiveness are required to befriend any animal. They are eager to please and love challenges,” he smiles.
Chenthu ran a pet parlour and a restaurant before he ventured into Kollywood. “I have always wanted to be with animals. I am glad I found a wife who supports my vision,” he adds. His breakthrough came when he heard the makers required a German shepherd for Sibiraj-starrer Naigal Jaakirathai. “Also, I extended my services in Theeran Adhigaram Ondru and Gurkha that were sensational hits. Animal-based films work big time with family audiences. I loved animals from a young age and here I am,” says Chenthu.
As I begin this conversation, a dachshund distracts us. “If you bring a dog into your home, he will change how you live. That too, in ways you didn’t expect. As human beings, we expect dogs to understand us. For instance, they don’t know ‘chewing on things’ is wrong,” he says.
It takes about a month to train a dog. Chenthu Mohan starts his work by familiarising animals with the lights and bustle of a film set. “I give them a name; so that people stop freaking out,” he notes. One-to-one communication is the key with trainers who help the animals translate words into action. “The relationship between the dogs and trainer is intimate and sustaining,” he says.
Chenthu insists that he works only with technicians who treat dogs the way they treat human beings. “You have to know when to say ‘no’ within the film industry. That’s a quality of a good trainer,” he says.
“Today’s film industry is under threat from CG animals. Sometimes, there’s no substitute for the real animal. There’s nothing like a four-legged furry to add that ‘aaah’ factor to a film,” he cites.
Chenthu Mohan adds his dogs travel by a Nano car. “To others, they are dogs. But I see them as my kids,” he grins. “First, I teach them functional behaviour. After reading the script, I train dogs for specific scenes. I make sure I know the whole script; so that the shoot doesn’t get delayed because of my pets. All dogs can be trained in basics, but beyond that, it is down to intelligence and work ethic. Adding a dog to a film is a way of gaining sympathy and holding our attention, which almost works,” he says.
Most films demand ‘impractical’ things like ‘defusing a bomb’, laughs Chenthu. Making Scooby play a sniff dog, Chenthu says, was one of the hardest assignments he has done. “Understanding animals and what they are capable of is not a joke. But understanding film people is more difficult,” he rues.
The proud father in Chenthu Mohan says the production team of Gurkha were bowled over by Scooby’s ‘instinctive approach towards acting.’ “We got all the shots done on time without no retakes. I rewarded Scooby with cuddles and goodies,” he adds.
Chenthu elaborates, “Animals are light and sound sensitive. Often they want to explore or hide. I was overwhelmed when Scooby aced the tough scenes. Being a lazy bum, I never thought he would make me proud. Offers are pouring in to cast Scooby already. Up next, he’s a part of Nayanthara’s film,” he says.
Chenthu has an animal farm close to his Madambakkam residence. “I bring various breeds of dogs on request. Sometimes, a particular breed has to be found to fit the role. And, most of them end up staying with me post-film related commitments,” he says. Everything Chenthu knows about dogs is through “practical knowledge and exposure”. On a lighter note, he says, sometimes, vets also do seek his advice.
Chenthu Mohan does his “own research” and feels “like a translator between human beings and the dog.” He says, “I’m adept at the animal language. Some animals are naturally gregarious and affectionate. But a few of them are introverts and you know you aren’t training them. It is important to have the right animal for the right job. That comes with experience.”
Chenthu believes no diploma can match a natural empathy for animals. “This profession has a lot to do with psychology, marketing and people skills. It’s mandatory that trainers should be good with dogs, but we need to be equally competent with human beings as well. I wish the film industry recognised animals and trainers with awards. I don’t think the National Award even has a category on this,” he adds.
How does he manage all of them? “Dogs seamlessly fit into my house. The numbers don’t matter. Every dog is a new bond, just like every person. Dogs are the masters of our home and my wife and I are merely their staff,” he says.
Chenthu Mohan wants to train more dogs to help kids struggling with autism and mental disorders. “I work nearly every day and have no qualms about it. When I am away, I monitor the farm via Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras,” he says. He feels it would be better if he got more helpers to keep his farm clean. “I get people. But they don’t stay with me for a long time. Everyone wants to cuddle dogs, but nobody wants to clean their poop,” he breaks into laughter.