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Diversifying the playing field with coloured asexual portrayals

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The Billionaire actor-producer Gehan Cooray on

By Tharishi Hewavithanagamage

Los Angeles-based Sri Lankan-American independent filmmaker and classical singer Gehan Cooray, recently unveiled his debut feature length film ‘The Billionaire.’ The film is a contemporary, gender-swapped adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1930s play ‘The Millionairess,’ set in the modern day context of gay marriage and asexuality, but pays homage to the style of Classical Hollywood films. The film has been submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in late 2020, after becoming eligible for both Oscar and Golden Globe awards nominations. Previously the film was awarded the Best Comedy Feature Award at the Burbank International Film Festival. The film has received favorable reviews from select critics in the industry.

The film was directed by Michael Philip, but it was Gehan Cooray who wrote the screenplay and had final creative control. ‘The Billionaire’ was shot on location in Ontario, Canada and the cast includes the seven-time Emmy Award winning actress Heather Tom (from ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’), Jordan Belfi from the hit TV series ‘Entourage’, Davi Santos known for his work in the ‘Power Rangers’ TV franchise, and Randy Wayne from ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ and numerous Hallmark channel films.

The story follows Victor Ognisanti di Parerga, an exceedingly prudish young gay billionaire of Sri Lankan descent. He seems to be the ultimate narcissist too, but is in fact quite the old-fashioned romantic at heart. His late, beloved father had set daunting conditions for any man who wished to marry Victor, the suitor must turn $10,000 into $3 million in 6 months. Victor subsequently meets a handsome and almost ascetically religious French American doctor who strikes him as spouse material for being very pure and chaste, and indeed the attraction is mutual. Surprisingly, Victor also finds out that the would-be suitor’s deceased religious mother has set her own daunting conditions for any man who wished to marry her son! As things get complicated Victor and the doctor try to find out if they really are soul mates despite the striking incompatibilities between the two personalities.

Born and raised in Sri Lanka, Gehan Cooray is a past pupil of St. Joseph’s College, Colombo and a graduate of the University of Southern California (USC). He is a multitalented and multifaceted artist who made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2019 with a solo concert in New York, with the Chef de Cabinet to the United Nations Secretary General looking on as Chief Guest. Gehan’s love for the cinema began when he was introduced to Classical Hollywood films like ‘My Fair Lady,’ ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Mary Poppins’ at a very young age. Gehan has produced and acted in short films that have been praised at many film festivals and ‘The Island’ was fortunate enough to speak to the talented actor-producer.

 

Q. How did you get involved in the world of cinema?

A: I grew up performing on the stage, but I didn’t consider becoming a filmmaker until I attended the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, which has the best cinematic arts school in the world and has produced Hollywood greats such as George Lucas.

I took as many film classes as possible and built an excellent foundation on cinema. Years later, a chance meeting with the famous director Jon Favreau got me into this field. Seeing my USC sweatshirt, he asked me if I’m a filmmaker, and at the time I was only an actor, I hadn’t produced or written a script. I made a few short films, which got into some famous film festivals and with the level of recognition I had received for my work, it was my mother who suggested I take the plunge and make a feature film. Making a feature film is an entirely different experience from making short films, and I believe that making feature films is what takes you to the next level as a filmmaker and an actor. I believe that filmmaking in this day and age, can help leave your mark. Immortalizing a performance on screen can benefit future generations.

 

Q. Why did you make The Billionaire?

A: To start off I’m a big fan of Bernard Shaw and his works, and one reason I began work on adapting the play is because I was drawn to the type of rich English language that Shaw used in his work. If you compare modern scripts, they tend to be very conversational, informal and sometimes profane, which is why I wanted to work on this particular project. In addition to the language aspect, I wanted my adaptation to relate to the modern era. I switched the genders around and renamed it ‘The Billionaire’ and while Shaw’s play had very sexual characters, here I bring in the theme of asexuality. In the film, I portray the role of the billionaire and chose the role because normally, when people hear the term, they immediately picture a white, heterosexual man, be it Donald Trump, Elon Musk or Bill Gates.

I wanted to step away from the norm and present a brown gentleman, who is also asexual. I’ve also addressed the stereotypical view where people assume that the rich and wealthy engage in promiscuous acts, by offering audiences a title character who is very pure and chaste. I wanted to present a complex character, who is pure and virtuous on the one hand, but is haughty and conceited on the other. Being an operatic singer, I incorporated singing into the film. For me, when singing opera, the emotions are grand, epic and larger than life and in the film the singing is a transcendent experience. One could even say that the singing is even better than sex.

 

Q. What is the significance of the theme of asexuality?

A: As someone who identifies as asexual even in real life, I’ve never seen a single movie or TV show in America or around the world that focuses on asexual characters. I wanted to champion that in my own art. I think that a small percentage of the population identifies as asexual but some aren’t even given the opportunity to discover that about themselves. Many are lead to believe that sex is the norm. Even in my own life I’ve received questions like ‘Oh Gehan, how are you going to find someone who doesn’t want to have sex?’ and my answer is that, if two people can connect emotionally, psychologically and romantically, sex doesn’t have to be the defining characteristic of a relationship or marriage. Today almost everyone is aware about heterosexuality and homosexuality, but asexual individuals have been left in the dark and, going forward I’d like to portray more asexual characters and provide role models for asexual individuals in society. I hope that people in the industry see colored people differently and engage in making the playing field more diverse.

 

Q. What challenges did you face?

A: Perhaps the first challenge was finding a good director who could bring my vision to life. My acting coach suggested I take on the role of director initially, but my mother actually pointed out that since this was my first time working on a feature length film while playing a lead role, it would be best that I find a good director. Eventually I found Michael who had his own production company in Canada, so we were able to shoot on location in Canada and gather a cast and crew as well. Michael was willing to give me a lot of freedom and control in the way I portrayed my character, and he allowed me to rehearse with the other actors on my own. His view was that since I wrote the script and since I knew the characters well, I could guide the other actors in their respective roles in order to bring my vision to life. Everything worked out beautifully as he directed everyone on set and gave me suggestions that made a significant difference.

Another challenge for me was getting to know the cast and crew, because this was my first time working with them. I had to discuss technical details, like how to ‘light’ a brown skin person in contrast to a white skin person. It was also challenging to explain my vision for the characters to some of the actors who took on the respective roles. As we worked our way through shooting, we came to really respect and admire each other more. Overcoming whatever challenges were thrown our way, the cast and crew really came together to create this masterpiece.

The real nightmare was post-production. The footage was held up in Canada for a long time and it took a while to get it down. I wasn’t happy with the post-production so I had to take it to Warner Bros. Studios and get it re-done. I felt like I would never reach the finish line but through perseverance and believing that the end product was going to be something of substance and quality, we made it. Winning the Best Comedy Feature Award at the Burbank International Film Festival, validated all our hard work and effort that went into creating this film.

 

Q. When will the film be released?

A: The film is yet to have its theatrical release. Ceylon Theatres reached out and is interested in distributing the film in Colombo and other areas as well, hopefully by the end of February or early March. While I was studying at USC, in one of my very first introductory cinema classes, we were told that movies were meant to be seen on the big screen, so I really didn’t want to take the Netflix route with this film. Big screens have a certain grandeur and it allows audiences to truly appreciate a good work of art. I’m old-fashioned that way but I’m happy with streaming on Netflix, after the theatrical run. I hope that audiences in Sri Lanka and in Los-Angeles will be able to see the movie on the big screen sometime soon. In Los Angeles, the Laemmle Theatres have chosen to release the film on its virtual platform, seeing as the cinema halls are still closed.

 

Q. What projects are in the pipeline? Will we see you as a director in the future?

A: With ‘The Billionaire’ reaching new heights, it brings in good exposure. I’ve managed to get in touch with a few big names in the industry. They are aware that a ‘Gehan Cooray’ exists, but getting an Oscar nomination will surely pave the way to working alongside veterans in the industry. I’m very happy about being given the opportunity to submit the film to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. It’s a great honour.

On a more independent level, I’m looking to work on a project that could be shot in Sri Lanka and engage our young and aspiring filmmakers, actors and cinematographers as well. I’m envisioning a project that will feature a big Hollywood actor or actress, but will promote our country at the same time. We have so many talented people in Sri Lanka, and while I’m in the country I hope to have some acting workshops for local groups of actors. I’d like to unearth some of our hidden talents and show our potential to the world, and bring in more Sri Lankans to the Hollywood film making industry. In addition, I have also recorded my first album, which will be released in 2021, which I cannot wait to share with everyone.

Directing is an art form in and of itself and going forward I do have certain story ideas where I might not take up the role of an actor. I wouldn’t necessarily direct on my own, in the coming years, but I might take on the role of co-director. Maybe when I’m in my 40s I’ll take up the role of a director and aspire to be like Jon Favreau.

The Oscars is around the corner and it’s certainly a nail-biting wait for Gehan and the cast and crew who worked on ‘The Billionaire.’ We will be seeing more of Gehan and his talent in the days and years to come as he plans his future projects with the hopes of creating a special place for Sri Lankans and for more representation for asexual individuals in Hollywood.



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Foreign policy dilemmas increase for the big and small

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‘No responsible American President can remain silent when basic human rights are violated.’ This pronouncement by US President Joe Biden should be interpreted as meaning that the supporting of human rights everywhere will be a fundamental focus of US foreign policy. Accordingly, not only the cause of the Armenians of old but the situation of the Muslim Uyghurs of China will be principal concerns for the Biden administration.

However, the challenge before the US would be take this policy stance to its logical conclusion. For example, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of the most heinous crimes to be committed by a state in recent times but what does the Biden administration intend to do by way of ensuring that the criminals and collaborators of the crime are brought to justice? In other words, how tough will the US get with the Saudi rulers?

Likewise, what course of action would the US take to alleviate the alleged repression being meted out to the Uyghurs of China? How does it intend to take the Chinese state to task? Equally importantly, what will the US do to make light the lot of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny? These are among the most urgent posers facing the US in the global human rights context.

Worse dilemmas await the US in Africa. Reports indicate that that the IS and the Taliban have begun to infiltrate West Africa in a major way, since they have been compelled to vacate the Middle East, specially Syria and Iraq. West African countries, such as, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mauritania are already facing the IS/Taliban blight. The latter or their proxies are in the process heaping horrendous suffering on the civilian populations concerned. How is the US intending to alleviate the cruelties being visited on these population groups. Their rights are of the first importance. If the US intends to project itself as a defender of rights everywhere, what policy program does it have in store for Africa in this connection?

It does not follow from the foregoing that issues of a kindred kind would not be confronting the US in other continents. For example, not all is well in Asia in the rights context. With the possible exception of India, very serious problems relating to democratic development bedevil most Asian states, including, of course, Sri Lanka. The task before any country laying claims to democratic credentials is to further the rights of its citizens while ensuring that they are recipients of equitable growth. As a foremost champion of fundamental rights globally, it would be up to the US to help foster democratic development in the countries concerned. And it would need to do so with an even hand. It cannot be selective in this undertaking of the first importance.

The US would also from now on need to think long and deep before involving itself militarily in a conflict-ridden Southern country. Right now it is up against a policy dilemma in Afghanistan. It is in the process of pulling out of the country after 20 years but it is leaving behind a country with veritably no future. It is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban once again and the commentator is right in saying that the US did not achieve much by way of bringing relief to the Afghan people.

However, the Biden administration has done somewhat well in other areas of state concern by launching a $1.9 trillion national economic and social resuscitation program, which, if effectively implemented could help the US people in a major way. The administration is also living up to the people’s hopes by getting under way an anti-Covid-19 vaccination program for senior US citizens. These ventures smack of social democracy to a degree.

The smaller countries of South Asia in particular ought to be facing their fair share of foreign policy quandaries in the wake of some of these developments. India, the number one power of the region, is in the throes of a major health crisis deriving from the pandemic but it is expected to rebound economically in an exceptional way and dominate the regional economic landscape sooner rather than later.

For example, the ADB predicts India will recover from an 8% contraction in fiscal 2020 and grow by 11% and 7% this year and next year. South Asia is expected to experience a 9.5% overall economic expansion this year but it is India that will be the chief contributor to this growth. A major factor in India’s economic fortunes will be the US’ stimulus package that will make available to India a major export market.

For the smaller states of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka, the above situation poses major foreign policy implications. While conducting cordial and fruitful relations with China is of major importance for them, they would need to ensure that their relations with India remain unruffled. This is on account of their dependence on India in a number of areas of national importance. Since India is the predominant economic power in the region, these smaller states would do well to ensure that their economic links with India continue without interruption. In fact, they may need to upgrade their economic ties with India, considering the huge economic presence of the latter. A pragmatic foreign policy is called for since our biggest neighbour’s presence just cannot be ignored.

The Sri Lankan state has reiterated its commitment to an ‘independent foreign policy’ and this is the way to go but Sri Lanka would be committing a major policy mistake by tying itself to China too closely in the military field. This would send ‘the wrong signal’ to India which is likely to be highly sensitive to the goings-on in its neighbourhood which, for it, have major security implications. A pragmatic course is best.

In terms of pragmatism, the Maldives are forging ahead, may be, in a more exceptional manner than her neighbours. Recently, she forged closer security cooperation with the US and for the Maldives this was the right way to go because the move served her national interest. And for any state, the national interest ought to be of supreme importance.

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A Sri Lankan centre for infective disease control and prevention

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The need of the hour:

BY Dr B. J. C. Perera

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

On 01st July 1946, the Communicable Disease Center (CDC) of the United States of America opened its doors and occupied one floor of a small building in Atlanta, Georgia. Its primary mission was simple, yet highly challenging. It was to prevent malaria from spreading across the nation. Armed with a budget of only 10 million US dollars, and fewer than 400 employees, the agency’s early tasks included obtaining enough trucks, sprayers, and shovels necessary to wage war on mosquitoes.

It later advanced, slightly changed its name, and transformed itself into the much-acclaimed and reputed Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It became a unique agency with an exceptional mission. They work 24/7 to protect the safety, health and security of America from threats there and around the world. Highest standards of science are maintained in this institution. CDC is the nation’s leading science-based, data-driven, service organization that protects the public’s health. For more than 70 years, they have put science into action to help children stay healthy so they can grow and learn, to help families, businesses, and communities fight disease and stay strong and to protect the health of the general public. Their are a bold promise to the nation, and even the world. With this strategic framework, CDC commits to save American lives by securing global health and America’s preparedness, eliminating disease, and ending epidemics. In a landmark move, the CDC even established a Central Asia regional office at the U.S. Consulate in Kazakhstan in 1995 and have been involved in public health initiatives in that region.

More recently, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), was established. It is an agency of the European Union, aimed at strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious diseases. The core functions cover a wide spectrum of activities such as surveillance, epidemic intelligence, response, scientific advice, microbiology, preparedness, public health training, international relations, health communication, and the scientific journal Eurosurveillance.

Still later on, the African CDC (ACDC) was born. It strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions, as well as partnerships, to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.

All these organisations are autonomous, independent, and are confidently dedicated to hold science to be sacred. They play a major role in advocacy and work in a committed advisory capacity. With the cataclysmic effects of the current coronavirus pandemic COVID-19, the contributions made by these institutions are priceless. What is quite important is that they are able to provide specific recommendations based on the latest scientific information available for countries and nations in their regions, even taking into account the many considerations that are explicit and even unique to their regions. All these organisations have been provided with optimal facilities and human resources. The real value of their contribution is related to just one phenomenon: AUTONOMY.

Well…, isn’t it the time for us to start a Sri Lankan Centre for Infective Disease Control and Prevention (SLCIDC)? It should be formulated as an agency constantly striving, day in and day out, to safeguard the health of the public. Science and unbending commitment to evaluation of research on a given topic should be their operating mantra. It would work as a completely apolitical organisation and what we can recommend is that it would be directly under the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, unswervingly reporting to and accountable to the President. It would consist of medical doctors, scientists and researchers but no politicians of any sort, no non-medical or non-scientist persons, no hangers on and no business persons. All appointments to the SLCIDC will be made by the President of the country, perhaps in consultation with medical professional organisations.

The prime duty of the SLCIDC would be to assess the on-going situation of any infective issue that has any effect on the health of the public. The organisation will undertake in-depth examination and assessment of a given situation caused by an infective organism. They need to have all relevant data from within the country as well as from outside the country. There will not be any vacillation of the opinions expressed by them and their considered views should not be coloured by any consideration apart from science and research done locally and worldwide. Their considered opinion would be conveyed directly to the President of the country. They are free to issue statements to keep the public informed about the results of their deliberations.

We believe that it would be a step in the right direction; perhaps even a giant step for our nation, not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but also on any major problems of an infective nature that might occur in the future.

 

This writer wishes to acknowledge a colleague, a Consultant Physician, who first mooted this idea during a friendly conversation.

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Kudurai Madiri Pona

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The big jumbo has come from the French land and as the French themselves say it is ‘annus mirabillis’ the miracle year, finally, and finally the wait is over. The world will now see the Big- Bus that we all waited for so long to see. As the years roll by, none would talk of delays regarding the delays on delivery dates and how late the bird flew in. These would be like words written on a blackboard, erased forever. But the aeroplane will grace the sky and, perhaps rewrite all the records of commercial aviation when the mega-miracle A380 dominates the international air-routes.

Singapore Airlines went into the record books as the launch customer. Some of my old friends from SIA would fly the A380. Perhaps, Luke would, too, and this story is about him. Luke of yesteryear and how he first flew as a cadet and how young Luke and I went romping the skies in our own special way, writing a few new lines in the flight training manual.

Luke was from Johor Baru, in Malaysia. His roots were in South India where years ago his grandfather had done a Robinson Crusoe and ended up in the Malayan Peninsula. Luke was named after one of the four Gospel scribes. Luke really isn’t his name. It is a pseudonym, I use just to give him some anonymity. Not much protection, but one is to three are playable odds. Like in Rumple stiltskin the manikin, you are welcome to guess the name.

We first flew to Seoul. He, straight out of flying College, and yours truly, as old as the hills, driving the ‘Jumbo’ classic, the lovable 747. The first thing I noticed about him was his socks, black and white diamond shapes, a mini version of the flags they swing at Grand Prix finals – if Luke swung his feet, a Ferrari would pass underneath. That we sorted out the first day itself. In Seoul,he went shopping and the next day he was Zorro, waist to toe, black as a crow.

His flying credentials were all there, somewhat mixed up between what they teach in modern flying schools and how to apply the ‘ivory tower’ jargon to cope with the big 747. As for raw handling of the aeroplane, all his skills were intact, only they were in bits and pieces and spread in places like an Irida Pola (Sunday Fair). They had to be streamlined, the wet market needed to be modified to a ‘Seven-Eleven’ – that was my job.

The next round we went flying to Europe, his first run to the unknown, like Gagarin in his Sputnik, young Luke flew to Rome. The flying was same as before, a bit mixed up amidst the hundreds of aero dynamical paraphernalia that spelled out from the encyclopaedic collection of books that he had to study.

That’s when I decided to change the tide.

‘Luke my friend,” I said to him in a fatherly fashion.

‘You and I are from similar fields, you from Kerala and me from Sri Lanka. These Min Drag Curves and VFEs and WAT limits and VLEs are too much for us. Just remember when you pull the stick back, the houses will become smaller and when you push the stick down, the houses will become bigger, that’s climbing and descending this monster,” I explained the simple theory of flight.

“As for landing my friend, Kudurai Madiri Pona, just ride it like a horse.”

That was it. We flew, over Europe and he flew like a Trojan, bravely battling the weather and the overcrowded skies. Every time he came in to land it was pure and simple Kudurai Madiri Pona and the big jumbo responded and touched down on the concrete as smooth as a honeymoon lover.

On the way back, we flew via Colombo, that’s my home ground. I requested the radar controller to give Luke a very short ‘four-mile’ final. They know me well here and the controller said “No problem, Captain.”

I was depicting what we did in the Old Hong Kong Airport or what we do in the Canarsi Approach in New York; both, most demanding. A ‘four-mile’ final is a challenge for anyone. I was throwing him in at the deep end and I had no doubt Luke could manage. He came in tight and right, like Hopalong Cassidy and rode the horse straight and beautiful to do a perfect landing. Gone was the Kampong kid and his ‘Irida Pola’ flying, this was Takashimaya and Robinsons rolled into one, everything was in place, nice and shining and professional to the tee.

That was our little story, Luke the ‘jockey’ and me. Sometimes in the field of training, the script needs a little changing. New acts to be introduced to suit the stage. That is the essence of teaching, different hurdles for different horses. It wasn’t for Luke to learn what I knew, more so, it was for me to know who he was and what he could cope with. That part was difficult to find in the flying training manual, and so was Kudurai Madiri Pona.

The world has gotten older and young Luke now wears four stripes and flies in command of Boeing Triple Sevens, fly-by-wire and multiple computers. I met him a few times, flew as his passenger, too, with great pride. “Captain Luke is in command,” the stewardess announced, and silently and gratefully I said, ‘Amen’.

I saw him walking down the aisle, looking for me. Same old Luke in his flat and uncombed Julius Ceaser hairstyle. He came to my seat and grinned and shook my hand and lightly lifted his trouser leg and said,

“Captain, the socks are black and it is still Kudurai Madiri Pona.

I am sure Luke will fly in command of the gigantic A380 one day. That’s a certainty. It would be the zenith for any pilot. Luke is ready, that I know. He is competent, polished and professional and will wear socks as black as midnight. It’s nice that he remembers his beginnings. That’s what flying is all about, that’s what life is all about.

Kudurai Madiri Pona

– ride it like a horse. Some flying lesson.

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