Making talk shows more positive: Dhanya Varma's 'The Happiness Project' turns one

“I don’t try to corner the person. I don’t make them say what they are not comfortable with,” says host Dhanya Varma.
Making talk shows more positive: Dhanya Varma's 'The Happiness Project' turns one
Making talk shows more positive: Dhanya Varma's 'The Happiness Project' turns one
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The introduction lasts about 20-30 seconds. Dhanya Varma appears on a couch, just as a joyful little tune ends. In the shortest of lines, she tells us about her show, The Happiness Project, and her guest of the day. It doesn’t have to be a celebrity. It could be anyone you read about in the news, anyone who made a difference. The talk show, which airs on Kappa TV, sees people from all walks of life in conversation with the host.

Dhanya’s show is doing well, really well. That it does at a time when there is so much on the internet, when talk shows and interviews are stacked up one on top of another, says a lot about The Happiness Project, which turns a year old today.

It could be the name itself. Dhanya remembers the name pulling in one of the first of her guests, actor Lena. Actor Tovino Thomas came before that, without knowing anything about the show.

“The germ of the idea comes from Sumesh Lal, the creative content head of Kappa TV (on which the show is aired). He contacted me about it three years ago, with an idea of bringing out inspiring stories. He said that there is so much negativity around, it brings you down. Life is not really about that,” Dhanya remembers.

Dhanya can’t stop naming the episodes that did well -- Maithreyan, Indrajith, Raghu Dixit, P Balachandran, Hari Menon, Madonna Sebastian.

Madonna Sebastian on The Happiness Project

Dhanya says that there’ve been difficult interviews too, where guests are not willing to open up. If a show does well, it is not just because the guests feel comfortable with her. It’s also because they make her comfortable.

“The show runs on their generosity,” she says.

Suraj Venjaramoodu cried talking about his dad to Dhanya. Madonna Sebastian, the introvert, opened up to her. Balabhaskar played a song on his violin for his wife Lakshmi. That’s one of the most viewed of her shows now with viewers wanting to hear his voice again, days after the musician tragically passed away.

Balabhaskar on The Happiness Project

When they started the show, they were not sure how people were going to respond. Dhanya knew she was going to switch between Malayalam and English. But she didn’t plan her interviews so it would only be happy questions. She’d gather the facts – ‘How they are portrayed in the media is the only reference point I have’. “The rest of it happens spontaneously, it’s organic,” she says.

It all looks like a living room chat between two friends catching up. The ambience is like that. Cozy setup, nice couches, lamps, pretty background. It’s like friends visiting Dhanya at her home. That’s how she begins the conversation. “The last time I met you,” would be her starting line sometimes. Or else, “You know I saw this Insta post of yours…”. She puts her guest into a comfortable familiar zone, and they go back to that post or that meeting, and forget that it is an interview and that they are on camera. They talk, simply talk. And she listens keenly to every word they speak, her head tilted to one side.

“It is an easy interview. I don’t try to corner the person. I don’t make them say what they are not comfortable with. It is a basic conversation, with a lot of respect for privacy,” Dhanya says.

Suraj Venjaramoodu's interview

Not that controversial topics or difficult questions are avoided. They come in the natural flow of a conversation. Answers are not dodged, they are rarely diplomatic. It does not attempt to make a sensational headline, or try to catch your attention with a careless line taken out of context. Even then, it works. The happiness simply catches on.

“I started getting messages one month into the show. Someone told me how they binge-watched and saw 20 episodes back to back. Another said that they stayed up till 3 am to watch the show. Some say they were able to come out of a depressed phase, watching it. It is not a promotional show, it is all about reaching out to people and making a difference in someone’s life,” Dhanya says.

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