Dhivyadharshini Neelakandan, also known as DD, has been on Tamil television since she was a child. The 33-year-old personality hosted the quiz show Siruvar Nigazhchi on Sun TV at the age of 10. Over the years, Dhivyadharshini has hosted nearly every dance, music and celebrity contest on Star Vijay, from Jodi No 1 to the ongoing Enkitta Modhadhe. She has also acted in television serials such as Ahalya, Selvi, Arasi and Kanavugal Aayiram. More recently, through her talk shows Koffee with DD (a Tamil spinoff from Koffee With Karan) and Anbudan DD, Dhivyadharshini has interviewed the biggest names in Tamil cinema. Anbudan DD even has a title song in praise of its host: “A little naughty, with a little bit of beauty, and one who stuns you with her kindness. She knows the truth, she understands and respects you but also brings out the fun side in you.”

Rather unsurprisingly, the star of the small screen has been fetching up in the movies. Dhivyadharshini will be seen in Rajiv Menon’s Sarvam Thaala Mayam, followed by Gautham Menon’s Vikram-starrer Dhruva Natchathiram. Rajiv Menon’s film stars GV Prakash Kumar as Peter, the son of a Dalit mridangam maker who becomes the pupil of maestro Vembu Iyer (Nedumudi Venu). A talent contest on television plays a pivotal role in Peter’s life. Dhivyadarshini plays the show’s producer and anchor.

Dhivyadharshini has previously appeared in small roles in the films Nala Damayanti (2003), Whistle (2003) and Five by Four (2003). In 2017, she appeared in an extended cameo in Dhanush’s directorial debut Pa Paandi, a film about a retired film stunt master (Rajkiran) reconnecting with his first love (Revathy). Dhivyadharshini plays the daughter who encourages her 60-year-old single mother to accept love and companionship again. “I didn’t know that one could become a celebrity by starting out in television,” she said during the course of an interview about the art of anchoring and her film roles.

What drew you to ‘Sarvam Thaala Mayam’ and ‘Dhruva Natchathiram’?
I wanted to be a part of Sarvam Thaala Mayam simply because the film is based on a good thought. It is a pro-Dalit film, but not an anti-anybody film. Menon sir’s films are generally simple, neat and nice. This film too is typically like that.

I’m playing a small role, that of an anchor-cum-producer. She’s nothing like the anchor that I am in real life. When sir narrated it and said that it would be good if I played this role, I just said okay. I’m always offered roles that cast me as an anchor, but it is because of the plot of this film that I wanted to be a part of it.

I can’t say much about my role in Dhruva Natchathiram. I have a very nice role. I’m not sure how much of it will finally make it to the screen. But I’ve enjoyed the entire process. Why would anyone say no to a project where you can share the frame with Vikram sir, Radhika ma’am [Radhika Sarathkumar] and Simran ma’am? It was just lovely. I simply went there to learn. I’m a very observing student and Gautham Menon is such a wonderful teacher.

Sarvam Thaala Mayam (2018).
Sarvam Thaala Mayam (2018).

You had a few film roles in 2003, but re-appeared on the big screen only in 2017 in ‘Pa Paandi’.
I acted in Pa Paandi only because of Mr Dhanush. He requested me to play the part, and all I said was, okay, I’ll do it but how it turns out is your headache and not mine. He agreed. And it worked out so well.

Pa Paandi, in fact, changed everything for me. It was a super character and my lines convey the premise or motto of the film – that it is never too late to fall in love or seek companionship. It is also a thought I personally believe in.

Any heroine would have agreed to play Revathy’s daughter. I was blessed to get a chance.

Many people came to me and told me that I acted very well. It was just one scene, but when directors and actors tell you your work is good, maybe they saw something. Maybe there is a little bit of an actor in me.

Did Dhanush tell you why he wanted you for the role?
Yes. My character is basically addressing all the mothers or the older women in society, and these are women who are taught to see certain things, especially love, marriage and companionship, in a certain way. Dhanush felt that only someone who is loved by all mothers in general should do the role and pass on this beautiful message. Why would anyone think twice when given that explanation?

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Pa Paandi (2017).

You have been an anchor for two decades. Did you anticipate this journey?
I definitely didn’t anticipate that my life would go in this direction, especially at the age of 10, when I hosted my first show. I was 14 when I hosted the Vijay TV show Ungal Theerpu. Obviously, nothing was planned. I was quite an innocent child back then. The only thing I was told by my family and mentors at Vijay TV was that whatever you do, do it correctly.

My sister Priyadarshini [also an anchor, news reader and actor] was always a huge inspiration to me. Then there was James Vasanthan, who taught me the craft and also built my confidence. I was only 11 when he gave me the stage. Even anchor Uma Padmanabhan would be so nice to me and encourage me by giving compliments.

I used to go do my work and come back home. Celebrities were always from films. I didn’t know that one could become a celebrity by starting out in television.

How did the film-based talk shows happen?
Somewhere along the way, people around me started to feel that I could host a talk show about cinema. Until then, this whole chat show format was done by somebody from the industry. I was the first outsider to have hosted the show.

For Anbudan DD, the channel’s programmers came to me and said they wanted a new show. And that’s how we came up with a very commercial show, with a live audience. The idea was to journey into the actor’s mind.

I’m very proud of the show. Even when I’m 60, I can show it to anybody in the world and say I did this show.

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Anbudan DD (2018).

What kind of preparation do you do as an anchor?
I’ve always maintained that my state of mind has nothing to do with what I’m saying as a host. Whatever happens in my life – maybe I’m very ill or happy or tired or heartbroken – there hasn’t been a day when I’ve not showed up at work. I channelise all that I feel into the show to make it better. My motto has been that no matter how you feel, always get up, put on your make-up and show up.

As an anchor, it is very important for me to create a platform or a stage for the person sitting in front of me to showcase his or her personality. That’s my job as a host. When I look at you, I’m thinking, okay, what all can I do to bring out the best in this woman?

This is true of reality shows as well. Say, somebody has just danced or sung a song. I’m looking to see what I can say to enhance their potential.

What happens when an interview subject doesn’t open up?
It happens. Whatever your intention, you still don’t know what they are going through or have gone through. So, I take it very slow and change my approach based on the person I’m talking to. Sometimes, it still doesn’t work and they never open up. But very rarely do they not open up to me.

What kind of reactions do you get from your audience?
The best compliment I get is when women and men, especially the elder ones, come up to me and say they want their daughters to be like me – as brave as me. The ones my age tell me that whenever they look at me, they feel nice, and the younger ones call me their inspiration. I don’t want to tell them I’m not as brave as they think I am and break their hearts. I’m also not as talkative in real life, for instance.

So, I feel extremely blessed. Through television, they’ve basically given me a seat in their drawing rooms, among them on their sofas. I better behave and know my responsibility.

Is DD a nickname that the television industry has given you?
It has been my nickname since school, actually. It began as a way of signing off on year-end slam books since Dhivyadharshini was too long and there were always too many Dhivyas in each class. It stuck and has stayed with me through television and now films.

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Koffee with DD.