Kannada lyricist and director Geetapriya who wrote over 250 immortal songs and directed 40 films tells Deepa Ganesh that his love for Kannada poetry brought him to the film industry. Money never came his way, but he cared more about giving his best to his work

The man who put a song on everyone’s lips, Kannada lyricist and director Geetapriya has lost his voice. Frail and weak, he walks into the living room of his house, gesturing that he has no voice to speak. With over 250 songs and 40 films to his credit, Geetapriya was a sought-after person in the Kannada film industry. In a career that spanned six decades, he directed some of the top actors of the industry and launched several others. When you meet him now, it is hard to imagine that this is the same man who filled the Kannada film industry with a charm and grace that was so unique to him. He is brimming over with memories, but when his voice pins him down, his actions overtake words.

Geetapriya’s original name is Lakshman Rao Mohite; his pen name came to stay and the world knows him as Geetapriya. His father worked for the cavalry regiment of Mysore State Troops, the imperial service called Mysore Lancers, which was stationed in Bangalore. Marathi was his mother tongue, but his love for Kannada poetry knew no bounds. “I studied in a Kannada school, and Kannada literature classes was something that I loved most,” recalls Geetapriya, as his voice tosses him between a croak and words marked by the complete absence of sound.

The great Kannada poet Pu.Ti. Narasimhachar lived in the same quarters as Geetapriya’s family did and the poet’s daughter was his classmate. Pu.Ti. Na’s poetry mesmerised Geetapriya, and till date remains his favourite poet. He read voraciously – Shivaram Karanth, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Ta.Ra. Su, Aa. Na.Kru… -- and was inspired by them. He began to try his hand at writing right from his middle school days and sent his poems and short stories to magazines like Taayinaadu, Ramarajya and others. Bellave Narahari Shastry, the Kannada scholar was his father’s friend, and Geetapriya often went to him with his writings.

His mind may have taken solace in the creative realms, but Geetapriya’s reality hardly offered any comfort. They were a large family of eight members and there was always a paucity of resources. “I completed my CA intermediate even as I took up small writing assignments. But this wasn’t enough. I began to look for a job and found one as a clerk in Cubbon Park restaurant.” Geetapriya had a brief association with Kannada theatre in his student days and it was here that he became friends with Vijaya Bhaskar and M.B. Singh. “We all acted together in plays,” he says, chuckling. When Geetapriya got a job, all his friends came to the restaurant and since working in the film industry was their collective dream, they discussed for hours. “Kalyan Kumar, cameraman N.G. Rao everyone would be there. One day, Vijay Bhaskar said ‘give up your job, let’s work together in a film. N.G. Rao has decided to make one.’ I couldn’t do it because my salary of Rs. 35 was very crucial to the family. I worked very hard. I would leave home by 5.30 a.m. and return at 11 in the night. But Vijay Bhaskar kept insisting. I decided to tell my mother. She looked worried for a few minutes, and said ‘Do what you like most’…” Vijay Bhaskar promised Geetapriya that every month Rs. 40 would be handed over to his mother, and he lived up to it. “Till my mother passed away she would remember how Vijay Bhaskar personally came every month to hand over the money for one full year till the film was complete.” With Shri Rama Pooja in 1954 Geetapriya made his entry into the film world. “After the film, Vijay Bhaskar had told me that whenever he got a chance to compose music for a film, he would make sure that I was the lyricist….,” said Geetapriya, going into a poignant silence as words fail him.

Geetapriya, like all other artistes of the Kannada film industry, moved to Madras. He worked with Y.V. Rao for the film Bhagya Chakra, wrote dialogues and songs. Ramanjaneya Yuddha in 1963 became a super hit what with songs like “Jagadishanaduva Jagave Natakaranga”, and this was followed by the film Onde Balliya Hoovugalu for which Mohammed Rafi sang “Neenelli Nadeve Doora” and “Aadutiruva Modagale” for the film Bettada Huli.

In Koodambaakam in Madras, it was the practice of all the Kannadigas to meet and chat over coffee and snacks. Geetapriya met thespian Rajkumar, Narasimharaju, Balakrishna and others during these meetings and became good friends with them. “I had a story in my mind. One day, I narrated it to Rajkumar. He immediately said it was a very nice story and it should be made a film with him acting in it. That was a great moment for me,” recounts Geetapriya. Over the next one year, Geetapriya finalised the script for his first directorial venture Mannina Maga. But there was no money, a set would easily cost 50-60,000 rupees. “Rajkumar had said he would drop everything and come when I was ready to start. Someone told me of a house in Sadashivnagar which could be used for shooting. With trepidation, I told Rajkumar about this and he agreed without a second thought. “We also shot in a village Pichchalli and had booked accommodation in the Nandi Hills. Rajkumar wanted to stay in the village itself, and as long as our shooting schedule was on, he stayed there. The simplicity of yesteryear actors is unbelievable…,” says Geetapriya. The making of the film also got stretched because of lack of finances and when it was finally released in 1968, it ran for more than 100 days in Bangalore’s Kapali and Bharath theatres. To this day, the songs of the film “Idena Sabhyate” and “Bhagavanta Kai Kotta” remain the Kannadiga’s favourite.

Geetapriya recalls many fond moments from his industry days. Vishnuvardhan had great regard for him, and when he was making the film Hombisilu, Geetapriya had problems with Vishnuvardhan’s body language. Hesitatingly, he told Vishnuvardhan, who had already made a name for himself. “I will do as many times as you want till you like it,” the actor had said going through the rehearsals with total commitment. “The way Balakrishna, Narasimharaju and Rajkumar would practice their lines! They would try it in so many different ways before they got it right. It was a pleasure to work with them,” he remembers.

Geetapriya wrote a variety of songs. He could write romantic songs like “Premavide Manadi” and “Besuge”; equally convincingly he could write “Gopi Lola”, “Gudiyaliruva Shilegalella” and the like. “I would imagine myself as the character that was singing the song. That perhaps made it possible,” he explains. Earlier, with Vijay Bhaskar and T.G. Lingappa, a song would be composed, but with the entry of composers like Satyam, the song had to be written to a tune. “This was difficult. It curbed free flowing imagination. Eventually, we got used to it…”

With a long career, hundreds of songs and so many films, including three in Tulu, Geetapriya’s earning hardly matched his output. “They gave us Rs. 50 for a song. For direction I used to get Rs. 1000. I never asked for more, just took what came my way. It was so important to earn a good name that nothing else mattered to me. Yes, I have suffered because of that…,” he says his voice completely fading. But the next instant, as he takes me through his album his face brightens with good cheer.