The heavens finally opened up in Chennai, a day ahead of the release of superstar Rajinikanth's film Kaala. Merciful showers lashed the ground even as we made our way into the Mylapore Fine Arts Club. A short walk inside and we immediately recognised animal trainer Simon, tending to a bull that was preparing to 'act' in a play.
But it was another hour before the Kaala star we were awaiting at the venue graced us with his presence. Trotting into the club fashionably late, was a character from the film who has been splashed on posters across the world since the film's promos began. And a few sniffs and friendly pats later - Mani, the Indian mongrel that stars as Rajinikanth's pet in the movie, finally settled in for an interview.
His trainer Simon, with 30 years of animal training under his belt, is by no means new to the film industry.
"But after training a dog for Rajinikanth's film, I have shot to international fame. Mani has really bolstered my career," he says, still shocked by the sheer number of interviews he has given over the last two months.
So, is 'Mani' actually the dog's name in the film?
"I haven't revealed this to anyone before," he starts, with a smile. "But since the film is releasing tomorrow, I'll tell you. His name in the film is actually 'Asami' (common man)," he reveals.
But what is the subtext? Is a dog being compared to the common man's plight?
"You'll have to ask the director that," he grins. "But I can tell you that whenever Superstar is in the scene, Mani will definitely appear soon after. He will go running every time Rajini calls him from the jeep and will always be around him," he adds.
Mani shares a great equation with Rajinikanth who pretty much won his loyalty on the first day with a packet of biscuits.
"Before all of us, he would know when Rajini sir entered the sets. He'll start whining and when we let him go, he'll run straight to the caravan and wait for him. Sir also really likes him. Even when he jumped on him, Rajini sir will say 'Let him be, it is okay'," he explains.
The last dog to gain this kind of attention in a Rajini film was the imposing great Dane that appeared briefly in Baasha. Mani, on the other hand, is a fawn coloured indie with immense energy. So, what led to his casting in the Pa Ranjith film?
"I showed Ranjith sir close to 30 dogs and he wasn't satisfied. He said he doesn't want Labradors or German Sheperds, only a native breed. So, I was on the look out for a mongrel," he narrates. "The way I found Mani was extraordinary. I was at a signal in Tambaram when an animal jumped across the road in just two leaps. I looked around and asked people if it was a deer. They laughed and said it was just a dog. But I knew I'd found my actor," he shares.
Simon went chasing Mani down the road, almost getting bitten in the process. The dog had no collar and was being taken care of by locals. He immediately snapped a picture of him and sent it to the director.
"Ranjith saw its perky ears and sharp eyes and immediately decide to cast him in the film," says Simon. "He was easy to train and quick to follow instructions. We've shot with him for three months in Bombay and in EVP film city," he adds, patting Mani on the head appreciatively.
So, does it even come as a surprise, that there is a huge demand from across the world to buy the dog?
"I've got offers up to Rs.2 crore," says Simon. "It started with Rs.30,000, but some Malaysian Tamils are ready to even pay crores to get hold of the dog that acted in the Rajini film. But he is like a child to me, I can't give him away," he explains.
After Kaala, Mani has already starred in three films.
"One is a Bala movie, then Neeya 2 and finally a circus related movie. He stays with the heroine in that movie, despite being the hero's dog," he reveals.
As of now, however, Mani is a busy boy. He has been attending multiple events, interviews and is gearing up for the big release on Thursday.