All Creatures Great and Small

The hairy work of a prolific Bollywood animal handler

Iyer’s dog Tiger appeared in a Pepsi advertisement with Shah Rukh Khan. COURTESY SHANKAR NARAYAN AIYER
01 January, 2017

A few vanity vans were parked on the bank of a lake in Mumbai’s Film City studio complex, where a scene from the upcoming Marathi film Idak was about to be filmed. As the crew adjusted their cameras to accommodate the blazing November sun, the director, Deepak Gawade, sent for two of his lead actors: Sandeep Phadke and Somaih. Phadke arrived within minutes, but Somaih was nowhere to be seen.

After 20 minutes of waiting, Gawade sent Shankar Narayan Iyer to hurry Somaih up. Iyer, a bearded man wearing a cap, disappeared into one of the vans, where another member of the production team was struggling to bring Somaih onto set. Within a few minutes, Iyer emerged with the actor. When I asked him how he had managed it, Iyer said, “I promised him a good meal, provided he gives his best shot.” Sure enough, after Somaih performed well, Iyer gave him a pack of Parle G biscuits and herded him back into the van.

Somaih is a goat, and Iyer his dedicated handler. When Iyer was hired to work on Idak—whose central plot explores the bond between a man and a goat—he purchased Somaih and Namaih: two Malabar goats from Cochin, both white with brown spots. “Shooting continuously for long time can be stressful, and this way, both can share that burden,” Iyer said. Apart from him, he claimed, no one on set could tell the two animals apart.

Before Idak began shooting, Iyer rented an apartment, where he lived with Somaih and Namaih for two weeks, taking pains to “learn their habits and body clock.” Goats, he told me, cannot be kept in cages, so they “would sleep near my bed and excrete every five minutes.” Iyer’s family, who were staying in their home in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri, away from the goats, were “not very pleased with the arrangement,” he said. “But they know the demands of my job.”

Iyer has been working in film for a quarter of a century. Tapping into a network of pet owners, farmers and trainers from around the country, he obtains a wide variety of animals for Indian and international movies. He often also trains the animals and handles them on set, helping them perform to the script’s requirements. Some of his best-known pupils have appeared in popular Bollywood films—for example, he trained the stray dog in Kapoor and Sons, and the tiger in Kaal.

Iyer’s bond with animals goes back to his childhood in Ooty, where his family lived with a dog and a few rabbits. “There were a very few people around,” he said. “We didn’t have a TV, and there was only one radio channel. But I had my furry pets for company.”

When he was 17 years old, his family moved to Mumbai. Soon after, a friend gave Iyer a puppy: a fawn Labrador named Tiger. In 1991, the two were spotted by an assistant of the noted ad man Prahlad Kakkar. The assistant “asked me if I was willing to allow my dog be part of a shoot,” Iyer remembered. He accepted the gig, which was for a Panasonic advertisement. Soon after, Iyer started booking jobs for Tiger in ads and films, including the role of a mischievous dog in the 1999 film Biwi No 1. During the shooting for that movie, Iyer said, “I would always be in his line of sight, quietly coaxing him, and he would deliver.” Before Tiger died in 2008, Iyer said, the pair worked together in 120 productions.

As Tiger got more jobs, Iyer developed a passion for animal handling, building his network and coming to supply filmmakers with different types of creatures, including marmots, worms and monkeys. Recently, he obtained elephants for Xuanzang, a Chinese historical film about a seventh-century emperor’s overland journey to India. For another Chinese movie, in the 1990s, Iyer trapped about 500 butterflies. “I went with a big net to the mangroves in the suburbs—which were yet to become concrete jungles—and meticulously caught them,” he recounted. “I placed them in flower baskets sprinkled with honey. It took a couple of days to catch them.”

For a quarter of a century, Iyer has worked in Indian and international films. COURTESY SHANKAR NARAYAN AIYER

Not all of his insect-related jobs were so pleasant. Early in his career, he had to hunt in the gutters at night to trap cockroaches for an advertisement for a pest-control brand. Iyer’s most challenging job ever required him to sift through sewage, sourcing 100 rats for a scene in the 2000 Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Josh. “You can’t predict what the next director will want,” he said, sighing.

Iyer’s work has earned him numerous monikers in the film industry. “Some call me kutte-wallah, others ghode-wallah or kabootar-wallah,” he said—terms that refer, respectively, to his work with dogs, horses and pigeons. “I have at least 100 names, and even have been credited in films like that.”

As he did with Somaih, Iyer often uses the lure of treats to make animals perform. He has also learnt how to exploit their natural instincts and behavioural patterns. Once, for an MTV programme, he worked on a scene that showed a woman walking her dog past a wall covered in Bollywood posters. When she reached the last poster, the dog was required to relieve himself. “It’s impossible to command a dog to pee on demand,” Iyer said. “So I collected another dog’s urine and poured it near the spot. Dogs are territorial and don’t like others encroaching their space, so he promptly urinated,” in just one take, at the required spot.

Over the course of Iyer’s career, there have been significant changes to the way filmmakers can legally treat animals. In 2001, the Animal Welfare Board of India published the Performing Animals (Registration) Rules. According to Iyer, “Once a script is storyboarded with details, it is sent to AWBI for approval, keeping the guidelines listed on AWBI’s website in mind.” For example, he said, the 2007 biographical drama Gandhi, My Father had a scene in which children tie firecrackers to a dog’s tail and chase him. The production team had to work around the AWBI’s restriction that animals cannot be subjected to fireworks and noise. So, Iyer recounted, they tied a rubber band to the dog’s tail, causing it to take off running and allowing them to get the perfect shot. “Sometimes, you just get lucky,” he said.

The AWBI’s rules encourage filmmakers to use computer-generated graphics instead of real animals. But Iyer has not seen a decrease in demand for his services. “Computer-generated graphics are expensive,” he said. “It is, in fact, cheaper to source the animals.”

Using animals can also be pricey, though. Gawade, the director of Idak, told me that the cost of a trained dog, including handler’s fees, is about Rs 10,000 per day, while the daily rate for an elephant is about Rs 50,000. There are also hidden costs to using animals, he said, because managing them takes time, prolonging the shooting period. Still, Gawade prefers not to use computer-generated images, since they do not seem as authentic on screen. “If Somaih had one or two scenes,” Gawade said, he might have used computer-generated imaging. “But he is there in a lot of scenes. So it was best to use a real animal.”

Despite Iyer’s professional equation with his creatures, he also views them as his pets. “Animals understand the language of love, and will obey if they are treated and cared well,” he said. At present, he has seven dogs living with him in Andheri. Iyer also owns a farm in Badlapur, on the outskirts of Mumbai, which is home to more dogs, as well as some cats and birds.

After filming for Idak ends, the goats will join the other animals there. “They are like my children now,” he said. “I can’t sell them or throw them out.”