A state-level basketball player and member of the National Cadet Corps (NCC), Dayana Erappa never imagined a career in showbiz, much less a role in a Mani Ratnam film. From a shy youngster, she is now a confident model-actor and one of three heroines in Ratnam's Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (CCV). She spoke to us about her gradual transformation and how working with Ratnam has whetted her appetite for cinema:
You grew up on a coffee estate in Coorg, far from the madding crowd. Did you harbor a desire to be in showbiz one day?
Not at all. Nobody from my family is in showbiz. My uncles come from an Army background and my dad runs a coffee estate in Coorg. He wanted me to join the Army. I've always been an outdoorsy person and was too shy to even venture near a stage. So I never imagined I would turn to modeling or acting one day.
How did the shift to modeling happen? You're now a Kingfisher calendar girl, a Femina Ms India contestant and winner of the Elite Model of the Year award
It happened by chance. I did my schooling at the Madikeri Bhartiya Vidya Bhava in Coorg and then took up commerce at Mysuru Mahajana's University. I graduated in Economics from the Baldwin's Methodist College in Bengaluru. My friends had always said that I had the height and looks to be a model, but I didn't take them seriously. My personality made my principal think that a career in modeling would be good for me. So she gave me fashion stylist Prasad Bidappa's contact. I met him and after he groomed me, I won the Femina Ms Photogenic title in 2011. I soon started getting many modeling assignments in Bengaluru and later, Mumbai. That's when I decided to shift to Mumbai and pursue modeling. I had started enjoying the idea of meeting people, wearing designer clothes and travelling. Once in Mumbai, there was no looking back. I won the Elite Model of the Year 2017, represented India at Shanghai and was also a Kingfisher Calendar girl in 2015 and 2017. I was on a lot of magazine covers and getting editorial work in Vogue and Elle.
Models usually move to films. Did you think of joining the film industry at this point?
I was still too shy to ever think of getting on a stage. My friends kept telling me to try acting and even pushed me to a few TV auditions. But the sight of a 100 girls waiting was enough to intimidate me. I would try to be the last to go in and avoid giving the audition altogether. So films was never on my list of things to do.
You're still one to the lucky few to have bagged a dream debut with the legendary Mani Ratnam. How did that come about?
It still hasn't sunk in. I was out shopping when I got a call from a Richard, an assistant director. He said Madras Talkies was casting for their next film and a casting director had told him about me. He asked if I spoke Tamil or Telugu and whether I could send him a few photos. I thought it could be a prank call so I looked for Richard on Facebook first. Assured of his credentials, I sent him my photos. I could speak Tamil since many people spoke it at the estate. Two months later, I got called to audition with Shivakumar and team at Shaad Ali's house.
A few weeks later, I was told that Mani sir had liked my tape and wanted to meet me at another audition in Chennai. I flew down. I was nervous and didn't know what to say but he made me comfortable. When he told me, 'Welcome to the movie,' I was overjoyed. I didn't ask about either my role or the film, because I knew I was in good hands. My inhibitions melted away. I was just grateful that I was selected.
You had no experience as an actor. How did you prepare for your role?
I flew to Chennai and attended a workshop with Kalairani ma'm, who Mani sir had referred to me. I learnt a lot about emoting, eye movements, expressions and voice training. Mani sir didn't tell me about the script till February, when we started filming. He felt that my natural vulnerability, freshness and raw energy was what the role of an NRI girl required. I went back to Mumbai and joined theatre workshops to learn more about the craft. That really helped me shed my inhibitions because I became totally focused on the work at hand without worrying about the audience.
What was the first day of shoot like? Did the pressure of having to deliver in a Mani Ratnam film get to you?
Of course I was nervous and anxious. My first day of shoot was in the biting cold of Serbia. I generally can't stand cold climates so I was shivering and lips were blue despite four cups of coffee. I was anxious to perform not only before Mani, but also a consummate star and one-take artist like Simbu. Santhosh Sivan was the DOP. With so many talents around me, I was apprehensive about getting things right.
What is Simbu like as a co-star?
I had heard about how talented he was, so I just went up to him and told him to bear with me if I took several takes since I was a newcomer. He was extremely understanding, patient and helpful. He would tell me, 'It's okay, just breathe deeply,' if he saw my anxiety. He kept giving me useful tips about the technical aspects – how to not block the light, where to stand.
Mani Ratnam is known to be a tough taskmaster. How would you describe working with him? What did you take away from the experience?
Once I eased out of my anxiety, I felt totally pampered on set. The shoot was hectic but Mani sir never raised his voice. He'd say, 'Kanna, lets do it like this,' and all my anxiety would melt at the endearment. He is thoroughly organised. He'll explain, but also ask the actor for his interpretation of the character. Before shooting, he fully briefed me about my character, Chhaya,who is fun, spirited and adventurous. If I had questions, I would ask the assistant directors who were thorough with their work. He is a man with a vision and a mission. He was calm despite the large star cast and hectic activity.
Between shots, I would observe Simbu and the effortless way he gave his takes. I learnt so much just listening to Mani sir discuss cinema and his past films with the crew during breaks. Listening to Suhasini ma'm talk about her cinematic journey was another huge learning. The 10 days I shot for the film have left an indelible mark on me.
Is acting going to become a full-time career from now on?
Yes, most certainly. I have come to enjoy what I am doing. I like that as an actor, you can live so many lives via the characters you portray.
Which industry will you pursue, given that you speak Kannada, Tamil and Hindi ?
I don't want to restrict myself to any industry. I am keeping my options open.