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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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Features

2019 Easter Sunday Carnage: An Intelligence Perspective

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By Merril Gunaratne

Retired Senior DIG

The predicament of those in the highest echelons of defence and police bring to my mind past serious failures, not entirely dissimilar to the massacre on “Easter Sunday” in 2019. Somewhere in the mid 1980s, an LTTE group, led by their Mannar leader Victor Fulgencius ,entered the Anuradhapura sacred city and brutally mowed down a large number of Buddhist pilgrims in broad daylight. The Coordinating Officer of Anuradhapura, SSP of the area and those below them, must have been “deaf and blind”, for they could not have been oblivious to the bursts of gunfire, and the plea of countless witnesses who naturally would have looked upto them for intervention. No positive efforts were made even to stall the retreat of the terrorists after the carnage to Mannar. Nor were inquiries instituted to hold senior army and police officers accountable for their shocking inertia. Likewise in broad daylight, a terror group, the TELO, stormed Chavakachcheri police station and razed it to the ground, killing all police officers in the station. The Coordinating Officer of Palaly, when questioned by the President at the National Security Council meeting following the disaster, stated that in such situations, “each service should look after itself”. The question raised was whether the Army should have engaged in an immediate and timely intervention. Here too no inquiry was initiated to identify accountability for the shocking failures. The “PLOTE” group of Uma Maheswaran came untrammelled up to the Nikaweratiya police station, in the Kurunegala district, attacked it and caused mayhem. No inquiries were held: none were held accountable. In the 1990s, the Katunayake Air Force base was attacked by the LTTE and the JVP, separately, causing death and destruction. None were called upon to shoulder the blame. Again, in the early 90’s, the LTTE ruthlessly killed over 600 police officers in the Ampara sector, because the IGP at the time ordered the fighting officers to surrender on an assurance from political leaders that the LTTE would release them. No Commissions nor inquiries were held in this regard.

There is however an essential difference between these instances and the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage. Ample intelligence from India, backed by a plethora of evidence and reports of dangers from the National Thowheed Jamath [NTJ] stored with the State Intelligence Services [SIS], the CID, and the Terrorist investigation Division [TID], had been in the possession of SIS, well before the disaster took place. Therefore the credibility of intelligence received from India was not in doubt, as also time and space available to adopt schemes to plan arrests and flood the country with optimum security. In such a context, the failure of defence and police officers to evolve plans to nip terror in the bud, differ sharply with previous instances. In previous cases, the security forces were taken by surprise. In the case of the “Easter Sunday” carnage, intelligence was available well in advance, so that ample opportunity was available to forestall terror plans.

THE STATUS OF THE STATE INTELLIGENCE SERVICE (SIS) IN DEFENCE

An aspect that came under scrutiny was whether the Director of the SIS had informed the President about the information received from the Indian counterparts. It may not be inappropriate to deal with two matters which find relevance in seeking to understand what ideally should have been done.

First, the SIS is the premier “Intelligence” service in the country, since it is expected to collect and collate intelligence of the police special branch, the CID and the TID, in addition to their own efforts. It is also responsible to monitor political targets, in addition to those connected with subversion, terrorism and espionage. It also enjoys wiretapping apparatus to enhance its capability.

Second, the Director of the SIS is virtually “primus inter pares” amongst members of the national security council [NSC], when it comes to access to the head of state, and in relation to his vital role of leading deliberations at meetings of the NSC with suitable briefs. Each and every director of the national intelligence service in its long history, will vouch for the veracity of this arrangement. From as far back as 1950’s, even superintendents of police in- charge of national intelligence had far more access to the head of state than the IGP; and the IGP did not often know what the Intelligence head had discussed with the President. The authority of the Director of the SIS therefore at times exceeded that of not only the IGP, but many others in the NSC as well. At the time I was Director of the National Intelligence Bureau, President Jayewardene would see only me before 8.00 am, prior to leaving for Cabinet meetings.

Though in pecking order, the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) is superior to the Director of the SIS, in actual fact, the latter wields far more authority since all agents and informers are controlled by the SIS. In addition, CNI only plays a supervisory role, while the Director of the SIS is the actual operational head of the intelligence agency.

SUBMISSION OF “SPECIAL”OR “SERIAL” REPORTS BY DIRECTOR SIS TO THE PRESIDENT

Being in a position of such privilege, whenever credible intelligence is received, the Director of the SIS has to take two immediate steps. First, he should immediately, through the shortest possible route, despatch a written, classified report to the President, with copies to the Secretary of Defence and Chief of National Intelligence [CNI]. Traditionally, a special ‘Box’ has been used for such despatch to the President, keys available at both ends to unlock and retrieve reports. The ‘Box’ would impress the president that the document inside was of an urgent nature. Depending on the gravity, nature and the urgency of such intelligence, as with the NTJ of Zahran, the Director may even decide to despatch copies to Secretary to President, IGP and Service Commanders as well. He has to concurrently speak on the telephone to each of the recipients of his report, emphasise the credibility and the grave nature of such intelligence, and also propose that the NSC be convened for discussion without delay. Such a standard arrangement of despatch of reports and telephone calls wherever the intelligence is of a grave and urgent nature, is a precedent in vogue from as far back as 1950s. The role of the SIS is to help the NSC to proact, rather than react. The prototypes of the SIS in the service and the police will play a supportive, rather than a leading role. The Director of SIS therefore can galvanise the National Security Council to act, or “put it to sleep”. There has been no indication from the Easter Sunday Commission findings reported in the media that the Director of SIS had despatched a written, classified report to the President.

 

FLAWED “INFORMATION” REPORT SENT TO IGP.

The ‘Information report” which the IGP received from the CNI, enclosed a note from the Director of SIS. It referred to the plans of Zahran and the NTJ to commit terror attacks, and suggested that further inquiries should be carried out. This report is “flawed” because it is not an Intelligence report. If the Intelligence received was credible (in this instance it obviously was), the report should have been in two parts. In the first part, the piece of information should have been reflected. The second part titled “Assessment or Analysis” is the far more important one, where the Director , harnessing his knowledge of the reliability of the source of information, along with his acquaintance of the background and history of the NTJ available in the subject and personal files stored in the SIS registry, should have stated with conviction that the information was not only reliable, but should be discussed as early as possible, and plans evolved to nip the threat in the bud without delay. A question that arises is whether the report of the Director sans an assessment was adequate to galvanise his superiors to ponder about the gravity of the piece of intelligence received. Even though flawed, the recipients yet had material in the report to discuss and plan on an urgent basis. Of course, a proper intelligence report may possibly have woken them up from slumber. In short, the report or note of the director of the SIS was not exactly an Intelligence report in the classic context. Adrian Weale in his book, “The Army of Evil” said, “Broadly speaking, intelligence is information that is gathered and analysed before informing decisions. Without the crucial analysis step …it is of no-value”

 

DEFENCE AND POLICE OFFICIALS TREATING THE INFORMATION WITH LEVITY

It had been unfortunate that senior officials such as the Defence Secretary, Chief of National Intelligence, Director of the SIS, the IGP and his deputies had acted in an amateurish fashion. They were not minions who should have been inactive, amidst such serious information, simply because the President was out of the country. If Defence Secretary , goaded and galvanised by Director of National Intelligence, summoned members of the NSC for discussion, many salutary proposals leading to an effective security plan may have emerged. The Defence Secretary was empowered on his own to summon members of the N.S.C. for discussion at any time. His “inertia” baffles imagination. In an overall context, none of those who received the somewhat “flawed” information in their enclaves considered it prudent to at least ‘put their heads together’ and discuss what should have been done.

 

ACCESS TO SENSITIVE RECORDS IN THE REGISTRY OF THE SIS.

The SIS, by virtue of being the national intelligence agency, is responsible, apart from ferreting intelligence through it’s own network of agents and informers, to collect and collate all overt and covert information from the CID, the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), and even from intelligence channels in the armed forces. The comprehensive records that they thereby accumulate, are stored in “subject” and “personal” files in respect of each subversive or terrorist target they monitor. These records are suitably classified ‘secret’ or ‘confidential’ so that only those authorised to see them can have access to such records.

The Director of the SIS, apart from the submission of ‘single piece’ intelligence reports to the Head of State, the Defence Secretary and possibly some other members of the National Security Council, also had to periodically compile periodic reports, based on the comprehensive records stored in respect of a particular target in the registry. Each such report will make a mature analysis of the activities and growth of the target, alert the government to their ramifications and sinister designs, and offer salutary proposals to nip or stall their activities. Such periodic reports are described as ‘special’ or ‘basic’ reports, and are invariably classified secret. This discipline too has been in vogue for a very long time. Such reports help the government to monitor, review and proact against terror threats periodically.

In view of the fact that omissions and lapses of the SIS leading to the massacre of innocents were under scrutiny by the presidential Commission the records in the Registry of the SIS could have been made available to the Commission to assist the probe. Terror groups like the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ) are extremely clandestine when they plant their underground network in the silent, ‘preparatory’ phase. This is a phase where terrorists are extremely elusive because of their obsession with stealth and secrecy. The activities of this preparatory phase can be discerned only through agents and informers, so that the SIS alone will have records which police, the CID and TID would not possess. The latter are predominantly investigators’ of acts after their occurrence. It is the SIS which should have good intelligence about external and internal links of the NTJ, their financiers, safe houses, military or weapons training etc. This is the kind of intelligence which helps the SIS to submit comprehensive, periodic “special” reports to the government.

Perhaps, the Commission could have been authorised access to the periodic reports and files of the SIS in respect of the NTJ. Such classified material would have been valuable in the quest for the roots and ramifications of the NTJ. Most of the witnesses who appeared before the Commission for evidence may not have possessed the type knowledge of the NTJ and its ramifications which only SIS officers would have possessed.

The SIS usually seeks to protect the identity of their officers as well as their records, for risk of exposure. Such safeguards may be necessary in normal circumstances. However, the carnage and massacre on Easter Sunday in 2019 due mainly to inadequacies of those in Defence and Police echelons, had led to a high level probe by a Presidential Commission, and evoked considerable public concern and interest. The entire tragedy has been in the public domain. It may therefore have been unreasonable if the records of the SIS had been withheld from the probe.

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Steeped in realism, rich in poignant themes and metaphors

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By Sajitha Prematunge

Asexual relationships are getting considerable limelight in the Sri Lankan cinema, what with Gehan Cooray’s The Billionaire and the recently released film, Ayu portraying such relationships, albeit in the vantage of different sexual orientation. Ayu was screened to a limited audience in celebration of the 74th anniversary of Sri Lankan cinema at Savoy Cinema, Wellawatta, on January 22. It is the maiden movie production of General (retired) Daya Rathnayake and the second film directed by Chathra Weeraman after Aloko Udapadi.

Presented by Weeraman Brothers, based on a story by Saman Weeraman, Ayu stars Sandra Mack, Jagath Manuwarna, Malani Fonseka, Ashan Dias, Kenara Wiratunga, Samanalee Fonseka, Sampath Jayaweera, Priyantha Sirikumara, Thumindu Dodantenna, Nalin Lusena, Udara Abeysundara, Kasuni Kavindi Fernando, Akalanka Prabashwara, Dinushika Senevirathne, Thiwanka Ranasinghe, Prasanna Dekumpitiya and Dasun Pathirana in a guest appearance. The crew includes cinematographer Kalinga Deshapriya, Chamara Selara as Assistant Director, Bimal Dushmantha in production designing, Saman Alvitigala in film editing, Milinda Tennakone in music, Harsha Manjula and Haroon Shaideen in makeup department, Sasika Marasinghe in sound department, Dinindu Jagoda and Lahiru Madhushanka in editorial department, Kumara Karawdeniya in costume designing, Shehan Obeysekara in production photography, Iresh Karunarathne, Primal Ranasinghe and Sashika Ganegodage in Production Management and Anuradha Weeraman as the Associate Producer.

The psychoanalytical film wastes no time documenting stressful therapy sessions or treatment. It is a journey towards the healing of the mind. Nishmi, a female pediatrician, didn’t only lose her baby in the almost fatal car accident that required the blood transfusion that sealed her fate, she’s maimed for life, with no hope of ever having a family of her own. Ravi, her husband’s elated revelation, “It’s negative,” comes as a surprise not to only Nish, but also the audience who was thus far convinced that the sole cause of her predicament was Ravi’s promiscuity.

Much is insinuated and less said in the film. Hardly anywhere is the acronym AIDS mentioned and only in one instance is HIV mentioned. This in itself is symbolic of the stigma HIV AIDS entails. We are given a first hand account of the kind of stigmatization AIDS patients undergo when Nishmi’s coworkers shun her as if they could contract the disease by brushing against her. A mother pulls her child away from Nish with an uneasy smile, while nurses and attendants avoid her. The stigma is so ingrained that Nish cannot expect to be accepted by her family. For example, Nish’s mother, played by Malini Fonseka, profusely washes her hands after dressing Nish’s wound. This is the last straw for Nish, who contemplates suicide.

There is no doubt that excellent casting choices contributed to the success of the film. The anguish of a mother in Fonseka’s words “I am your mother, I am your mother…” uttered to assuage her HIV positive daughter after she slighted by washing her hands, does not fail to evoke empathy in the audience. The film also marks screen queen Malini Fonseka’s 150th performance in an acting career spanning four decades.

Weeraman has commendably captured the anguish of the characters. Specially noteworthy is the performance by Sandra Mack as Nishmi, whether it is to her own credit or Weeraman’s ability to get a novitiate to strike the right emotional chords is irrelevant, because the end product is realistic. The fresh face of Mack helps to heighten the realism. We have never previously seen her acting and this makes it that much easier to identify with her role. Although her dialogue seems a bit contrived at the onset, which could be attributed to a shortcoming in dubbing, she grows on you.

Manuwarna’s ruggedness contrasts sharply with the seeming fragility of Mack’s Nishmi and the repelling magnate-like chemistry between the lead actors adds a novel flavour to the film. Make no mistake, it’s not your typical rich woman falls for poor guy kind of soppy. The film is abound with underlying deep socio-political and economic themes presented in the dichotomy of the upper middle class represented by Nishi and lower class by beach boy Sachin. It is certainly a thought-provoking movie peppered with allusions to Buddhist teachings, from the metaphoric boat that is life, to allusions of rituals such Bodhi Pooja conducted in hopes of being impregnated. Though Nishmi contemplated suicide earlier in the film, at the end, she just wants to row the boat. True to the Buddhist doctrine Nishmi comes to realise that we are but mere cogs in the samsaric machinery and that there is no other way out but to ‘row your boat’.

Inspired by true events, from plot, dialogue, acting to cinematography, Ayu religiously sticks to realism. The fight scenes are commendably choreographed with excellent cinematography helping to enhance realism. Even the songs are well placed, sans the melodrama, typical of Sinhala films.

However the tempo of the 116 minute film is somewhat slow, unnecessarily stretched to create the movie-length feature. The audience does not know where in time a certain scene is set. It is somewhat akin to memento or arrival, in that fragmented scenes are scattered throughout the film going back and forth in time. For example, images of passing lights from the vantage of a trolley being pushed through a hospital corridor, at the beginning of the movie, foreshadows a catastrophe waiting to strike. Although the trope makes it difficult to establish a footing, it adds to the arthouse flavour of the film. Things eventually fall into place when the film comes full circle, reconciling the past and present.

The genre, and by extension the target audience of the movie is ill-defined. Whether it a commercial or art house movie would depend on audience interpretation. The character of ‘Ayu’ is a case in point. Does the kid really exist? After all nothing is revealed about her. Her grandmother is MIA, the audience is in the dark about where she lives and when she is uprooted from her life in the village, whisked away by two strangers no one bats an eyelid. Uncannily similar to the character of child psychologist Malcolm Crowe in ‘Sixth Sense’, who turns out to be a ghost oblivious to his own ghostly existence, Ayu, who’s name literally means ‘life’, has little interaction with the characters other than Nishmi and Sachin, who are both, ironically dying. This life/death juxtaposition forms the crux of the film. Ayu may very well be a figment of one’s imagination, a metaphor for ‘life’. Is she a mere symbol for life or ‘ayu’ in Sinhala? If so, what better symbol for life than a child. If not, then the script is fatally flawed, in that it failed to develop an essential character. It is unrealistic that as a doctor Nish would have no qualms about exposing the child to a life threatening illness.

All things considered, Ayu is welcome respite from the mundane Sinhala movie that only offers unrealistic love stories that involve a lot of running around bushes, obviously phony fight scenes and ill-timed sorry excuses for songs. It is to be released in theatres soon and is not to me missed.

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St. Antony feast Katchatheevu

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The Jaffna Divisional Secretary informed the public, well in advance, that St. Anthony’s Feast in the Kachchativu island had been cancelled this year due to the Covid- 19 pandemic. The decision was well understood by devotees of both Sri Lanka and India.

This annual feast on a tiny island closer to the India-Sri Lanka International boundary line (IMBL) was an annual meeting place, especially for fishermen of both countries. Last year (2020) the feast was attended by more than 10,000 devotees. For the first time, Sri Lankan devotees out-numbered the Indians. Anticipating such a situation, the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Justin Bernard Ganapragasam had invited Bishop of Diocese of Galle, Rt. Rev Raymond Wickramasinghe as well. The mass last year was conducted in all three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English.

As a devotee of St. Anthony, the Saint who looks after seafarers, like me, even though I am a Buddhist, I was sad that I might miss this year’s feast.

However, some good news came from the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenna a few days ago. He said Jaffna Bishop had requested to have a mass at Kachchativu island without the presence of the public and only with a few priests on 27 February 2021, and if I was keen, I could join them. I was delighted to go there.

Kachchativu is located half a nautical mile from the Indo-Sri Lanka IMBL which was ratified by UN Law of the Sea conference in 1976, when maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives were demarcated and agreed to by all three countries and ratified at the United Nations.

It is mistakenly thought both in India and in Sri Lanka that Indian fishermen can come to this island to dry their nets. That was in the 1974 agreement, where even Sri Lanka fishermen had the right to fish in “Wedge bank”, in the Indian waters closer to Kanyakumari. When the 1976 agreement was ratified, those privileges were done away with and now Kachchativu is part of Sri Lanka’s territory and well within our waters. Please read the famous book on Kachchativu by late Mr WT Jayasinghe, who was our Defence and External Affairs Secretary in the 1970s (father of late Romesh Jayasinghe, our former Foreign Secretary in the 2000s) to learn more about how our beloved Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s diplomatic skills and close personal relationship with the then Indian PM Indira Gandhi won us the Kachchativu island back.

Those who championed in Tamilnadu and in the Indian Central government on taking back Kachchativu from Sri Lanka should refer to what Indian Attorney General Mukul Rohargi told a bench, headed by Chief Justice of India R M Lodha on 26th August 2014: “Kachchativu was gone to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974. It was ceded and now act as a boundary. How can it be taken back today? If you want Kachchativu back, you will have to go to war to get it back.”

I stayed at Fort Hammenniel, a beautiful fort built by the Dutch at the entrance of Karainagar channel, entrance to the old Jaffna port of Kayts, now part of our Naval Base, SLNS Karainagar. This tiny Dutch fort has its own history in our country, the place where the late JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was kept in captivity in 1971 with more than one hundred other JVPers. I could not imagine how it would be with 100 prisoners in this small fort.

I was not accommodated in any of these cells; I stayed in one of the four super Luxury rooms on the top deck of the fort.

My dear friend, Rear Admiral Senarath Wijesooriya, the Commander Northern Naval Area, joined me to travel to Kachchativu on the 26th evening (February). We travelled in an indigenously built Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), which can move at 38 knots (approx 50 mph). During the final stages of our conflict with the LTTE, under the guidance of then Commander of the Navy, today our Admiral of the Fleet, Wasantha Karannagoda, Navy Engineers built more than 100 IPCs which brought LTTE Sea Tigers to their knees on asymmetric naval warfare as per “Lanchester theory” and helped destroy all their “ultimate weapons at sea” – suicide boats. Visionary leader, Admiral of the Fleet Karannagoda, always told us, “You cannot buy a Navy – you have to build one” ! How true ! We built it for you, Sir. Bravo Zulu to our Engineers !

IPC moved at 38 knots in the mirror-calm sea, and took only one hour and 40 minutes to reach Kachchativu from Karainagar. I was so impressed with Petty Officer in-charge of the IPC, for his boat handling, and beaching the boat at Kachchativu and professional competence. With such junior leaders, our Navy’s future is bright.

With the full moon, calm seas and light breeze from the North East direction, it was a beautiful night. Few scores of sailors were preparing the church and surroundings for next morning.

One thing missing this year was the crowd. Camping in small groups and singing hymns praising St Anthony was not heard this year. The small “street” in Kachchativu, which was full of makeshift Indian shops with sarees, clothes and sweetmeats and Sri Lankan shops with soap, coconut oil and cinnamon were not there this time around.

The new church built by the Navy five years ago on the request from the Bishop of Jaffna was looking beautiful. This was a hundred percent donation by officers and sailors of the Navy. It cost us Rs. 7.7 million, total contribution by the Navy personnel, majority of them were Buddhists like yours truly. This church is a symbol of reconciliation.

The following day (27) by at 9.30 a.m. mass was, led by Very Rev Father Pathinathar Joshopthas Jebarathnam, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jaffna. 

The Mass was attended by 50 officers and sailors following strict quarantine laws. Vicar General , Very Rev Father Jebarathnam blessed all those present and others who had not been able to get there due to the pandemic. I missed Sri Lankan and Indian fishers. Their request to St Anthony is always very simple; that is for them to have a good catch of fish next year so that they could look after their families and come back to St Anthony’s feast again.

I also kept my request simple. “Thank you St Anthony’s, for allowing me to come to Kachchativu this year and give me strength to come back next year as well !”

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