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Diversifying the playing field with coloured asexual portrayals



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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Herd immunity and vaccination



HERD IMMUNITY: A good analogy is protection of calves in a herd of wild buffalos from predation by leopards. A sizeable number of adult bulls and cows in the herd attack and repulse leopards. Once in a way, a leopard would succeed dragging a calf, but a large majority of calves survive to ensure the continuation of the species. (Picture courtesy HAP Channel:

By Prof.Kirthi Tennakone,
National Institute of Fundamental Studies

With the advent of coronavirus vaccines, the idea of herd immunity is gaining ground – but often misunderstood or considered something hard to fathom. Herd immunity means the resistance a community develops against an infectious disease, when a fraction of its residents above a threshold acquires immunity either by exposure to the pathogen or vaccination. Thus, achieving herd immunity could safeguard individuals who cannot be immunized for reasons of being too young, convalescent or because of inadvertent inaccessibility.

A good analogy is protection of calves in a herd of wild buffalos from predation by leopards. A sizeable number of adult bulls and cows in the herd attack and repulse leopards. Once in a way, a leopard would succeed dragging a calf, but a large majority of calves survive to ensure the continuation of the species. If leopards prey exclusively on buffalos, they might be starved into extinction. Buffalos and leopards live in the jungle because the latter also hunt other animals. Similarly, in absence of non-human reservoirs of the pathogen, herd immunity provides a way of controlling an infection causing an epidemic or a pandemic and the elimination of the causative agent.


History and theory of herd immunity

Epidemics originate when a pathogen invades a population devoid of immunity. Science fiction writer H.G. Wells in his novel, “The War of the Worlds”, says Martian invaders were not immune to earthly microbes and all died due to an infection. We are not so alien to viruses here and the ability to make antibody machinery to fight them are genetically imprinted in our bodies.

Even in olden days when precautionary measures remained completely unknown or misunderstood, maladies ended before everyone caught the infection. Those days, epidemics were considered divine punishments or expressions of anger of deities. The cause that receded them; attributed to prayers, rituals or offerings to the demons, has been in fact the natural herd immunity.

The Mahavamsa and the Elu Athanagalu Vamsa refer to a catastrophe during the reign of King Sri Sanga Bodhi (252-254 CE). According to the legend in the latter script; a demon named Ratharaksha came to Sri Lanka and cast a spell reddening the eyes of people who stared at it in fear. Many who looked at the eyes of those afflicted also developed red eyes and contracted the illness. Very high mortality thinned the population of the land and the distressed king, ritualistically confronted the demon driving it to exile. The version of the story in Mahavamsa is similar but implicate a female demon Ratarakshi. What is the infectious agent behind this outbreak? From the symptoms described and the extreme contagiousness implied, the illness that ravaged the kingdom seems to be measles. The herd immunity threshold of measles exceeds 95%. There was also a famine accompanying the epidemic. Presumably, malnutrition and absence of immunity greatly increased the measles death toll.

Ages ago people lived in isolated communities. Therefore, an infectious disease which decelerated and vanished after reaching herd immunity did not remerge until the immunized percentage was lowered by people born subsequently. Many epidemics, notably small pox and plague followed cyclic patterns for this reason. Later on, the establishment of vast human settlements and extensive migration, turned epidemics into pandemics and many diseases remained endemic. Historians have also argued that the consequent wider dispersion of diseases, boosted the immunity of the global human herd thereby escalating the population growth.

The idea of herd immunity was first introduced by the American veterinarian George Potter in 1917; he noted a cattle disease disappeared on its own when animals were not introduced to the herd from outside. He said disease resembled a fire which extinguished when all fuel has been consumed.

In 1919 bacteriologist W. Topley infected a few mice in a large colony with a germ. He observed the infection expanded, subdued and stopped after infecting only a certain percentage of mice. Further clarification of difference between individual immunity and herd immunity followed from the work of American statistician A.W. Hedrick. He studied the epidemiology of measles in United States 1900-1911 and concluded measles epidemics ceased when 68% of children under 15 years became immunised after contraction of the illness.

The idea of herd immunity was firmly established after invoking mathematics into epidemiology – mathematician turned physician Sir Ronald Ross pioneered the theme.

Ronald Ross, born in India 1857, received his education in the United Kingdom and returned to his country of birth after qualifying as a doctor. He joined the Indian Medical Service 1880 and worked in Bangalore badly infested with mosquitoes. At the time malaria was suspected to be associated with mosquitoes. Curious, Ronald strived hard to understand how it was transmitted. Mosquitoes in the place he lived has been a nuisance; he closed all stagnant pools in the vicinity of his residence and found the mosquito number falling drastically, but realized complete elimination would be an impossibility. When Ronald Ross was transferred to a station free of malaria, he declined to work in a locality free of malaria!

In 1895, Ronald Ross identified the malarial parasite in stomach of anopheles mosquitoes proving its mode of transmission. He was awarded 1902 Nobel Prize in Physiology for this work done in India.

Having found the cause of malaria; Ronald Ross determined to find a way to eradicate it and resorted to mathematics in attempting to find an answer. His remarkably insightful mathematical analysis revealed malaria could be eradicated by reducing the mosquito population below a threshold dependent on human population density, and the impossible task of destroying every anopheles mosquito was unnecessary. Following work of Ronald Ross, another physician A.G. Kendrick and biochemist W.O. Karnack both well versed in mathematics generalized Ronald Ross’s hypothesis, concluding the progress of infectious disease in a community depends on the average number of infected persons reproduced by one single carrier of the pathogen. If this number referred to as basic reproduction number (R) exceeds unity, the infection could expand into an epidemic whereas when the number is less than one the disease subsides after infecting a few. From statistics pertaining to the growth of an infection, the basic reproduction number can be estimated.

It is easy to see how an infection evolves depending on whether R is greater or less than one. Suppose 10 persons contracted with an infection with R=2 enters a susceptible population. On average, they pass sickness to 20 individuals and this 20 in return reproduce 40 cases – an endless series of ascending numbers. If R is less than one you obtain a descending sequence – implying cases die down.


Herd immunity threshold

Suppose a population of N persons includes a number M of individuals immune to a disease. The fraction of immunes in the population is M/N (M divided by N). From simple school arithmetic, it follows that the fraction of persons not immune (susceptible) is (1- M/N). In the presence of immunes, the basic reproduction number scale down proportionately to the fraction of the susceptible population so that the effective reproduction number is (1 –M/N) times R, written as (1-M/N) R. The threshold happens when the effective reproduction number is exactly equal to unity, implying (1 –M/N) R = 1 or equivalently M/N = 1 – 1/R. The fraction M/N given by the above formula, referred to as herd immunity threshold is normally expressed as a percentage. For example, measles being highly contagious, the basic reproduction number can take values close to 20. Setting R = 20 in the formula, we obtain M/N = 0.95. Expressed as a percentage, the herd immunity threshold for measles is 95. To protect a community against measles, over 95 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated.

Vaccinating a community to exceed the herd immunity threshold would not abruptly halt an epidemic. Although the incidence of the disease gradually decreases, vaccinations and containment measures have to be continued until positive cases disappear completely – smallpox was eradicated this way.


Can we achieve herd immunity to COVID-19?

Coronavirus vaccines have arrived sooner than expected – many countries including Sri Lanka expeditiously commissioning inoculation campaigns.

Vaccinations and continuous adherence to precautionary measures will undoubtedly tame the virus. However, it is premature to assume global herd immunity would follow and the pandemic will soon end.

According to some estimates an upper bound to basic reproduction number for COVID -19 is around 2.5. Formula M/N = 1- 1/R explained previously, imply that the herd immunity threshold corresponding to R = 2.5 is 60 percent. Vaccines may not be 100 percent efficacious. For an 80 percent effective vaccine, the above thresholds increase to 75 percent. The other question is how long the vaccine induced immunity would last. At the moment sufficient information is not available to decide how the duration of immunity will interfere with the herd immunity threshold and how often vaccinations need to be repeated.

If faster spreading variants of the virus take over, the basic reproduction number and therefore the herd immunity threshold will also increase. The variants may turn out to be more resistant to vaccines. Remodeling of vaccines to make them effective towards variants is technically feasible but would delay the immunisation protocols. The answer to the problem of variants and temporary immunity is speedy vaccination – obviously constrained by real world practicalities.


Decreasing trends of COVID -19 incidence

Many regions of the world have begun to see a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths – plausibly a combined outcome of preventive safeguards and immunity derived from exposure to the virus or vaccination.

Israel has given more coronavirus vaccinations per capita than any other country – around 50 percent given one dose and 35 percent both doses. Covid-19 cases are declining and the world is awaiting see the outcome of the Israel experiment.

The United Kingdom has vaccinated more than 30 percent of over 80s and noticed a dramatic reduction in COVID-19 related deaths in this group.

Prompt inoculation of a sizeable fraction of a community is not an easy task. We need to await patiently to see the effectuality of the vaccines.

Dependence of herd immunity threshold on preventive measures

The preventive strategies or so-called non-pharmacological interventions significantly reduce viral transmission thereby lowering basic reproduction number and therefore the herd immunity threshold. Wearing masks, social distancing, hand-sanitizing and ventilation are proven safeguards. There is some evidence and theoretical arguments to the effect that preventive measures not only reduce the risk of contracting the disease but those who catch the disease under such circumstances develop milder symptoms or recover soon, adding to the pool of immunes. Argument rest on inoculum theory of viral transmission, according which the intensity of the infection a patient develops depends on the number of virus particles to which he or she was exposed. Emphasizing this point authors of a recent article published in the prestigious medical journal Lancet appeal to the world to continue strict adherence to preventive measures. This is most prudent method to safeguard against new strains until vaccines are remodeled.

Vaccination priorities

Vaccine production, procurement and organization of immunization campaigns decide the rate at which a community could be vaccinated. These limitations necessitate imposition of priorities. The World Health Organization and individual nations have laid down priority categories. Everyone agree the first priority should be frontline health care workers. The second category the older persons (generally above 65) more vulnerable and at the risk of death after contracting the sickness. Those living under conditions of extreme congestion and poverty are also a priority group identified by WHO. The younger working class, although they are less susceptible to danger of COVID-19, needs to be vaccinated. The policy of neglecting the older group in favour of younger working class is not only unethical but also epidemiologically flawed. In modern societies the percentage older persons (above 65) and socially active are significant. They, being most vulnerable to contracting the sickness because of impaired immunity, if infected, could also be the super spreaders. Recent studies have confirmed the presence of super spreaders, who are mostly elderly patients carrying larger viral loads.

Social reaction to vaccination

Societies react to vaccinations within confines of two extremes: vaccine hesitancy and vaccine overconfidence. The former has prevented eradication measles in localities where the herd immunity threshold stands inordinately high. In some parts of the world, vaccine hesitancy confuses mass COVID-19 inoculation. The latter misconception equally undermines the control effort. Not wearing a mask or not adhering to social distancing because you got the jab is not right. Vaccines are not 100 percent effective and immunity sometimes slacken. People not wearing masks, believing assurance of safety after the jab creates social stigma for those not vaccinated to abandon the precautions.

Vaccines and non-pharmacological interventions will certainly suppress the virus. Rapid decline in reported cases in some parts of the world may be a sign of a distant herd immunity in that region – but what we want is a global effect. As WHO Director Tedros said, “Until we end the pandemic everywhere, we will not end it anywhere “

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Unforgettable memories…



The memorable meetup – Imran and Alston

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was in town last week. He has been here, before, as a cricketer, and also has a head of a charity organisation.

Meeting a personality, like Imran Khan, is almost an impossibility, one would say, but it became a reality for ‘Disco Lady’ hitmaker, Alston Koch.

On a trip to Sri Lanka, many years ago, as head of a Charity Organisation, Alston had the opportunity of meeting this flamboyant personality – Imran Khan.

According to Alston, meeting and chatting with Imran was a wonderful experience.

Imran was keen to know from Alston as to how he got the name Koch, and Alston had to explain about the Anglo Asian connection, etc.

Describing Imran, as a person, Alston said he was very pleasant and down-to-earth.

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Manilal does it with ‘Island In The Sun’



We all know Manilal Perera as a singer, and with a voice that generally captivates…the fair sex, especially. But, what about his talents – as a composer!

I never knew about his ability to create songs…to produce originals, until I was told that Manilal had worked on a song, for an online Independence Day event, organised by the Sri Lanka American Association of Southern California.

And, yes, Manilal did indicate to us that he has been working on originals, during the days when he was associated with bands, and has about 15 creations to his credit.

This online Independence Day celebrations highlighted Sri Lanka in various formats – singing, dancing, etc.

The President of the Association, Sondra Wise Kumaraperu, was in touch with Manilal and requested him to do a popular English song, composed by another local artiste, for their online event

Manilal, however, convinced her to do something new and volunteered to create the song, himself.

Within a few days, with the help of fellow musician Kevin Almeida, the singer came up with ‘Island In The Sun.’

Manilal says he worked on the lyrics, while Kevin did the music.

The finished product, which took the form of a video, was shown during the telecast of the Association’s Independence Day celebrations, which was seen by many, via YouTube.

The Association’s President, Sondra, expressing her views, said that ‘Island In The Sun’ is a beautiful song and quite appropriate in glorifying the beauty of our paradise island.

Sondra has been associated with the Sri Lanka American Association of South California for many years. Her term 2020-2021 ends in April. Although she has been asked to stay on, she has declined to do so because of pressure of work, from other sectors, she is involved in.

Sondra runs a montessori school, and has a beauty salon, as well. So, the work load is heavy for her.

In Sri Lanka, Sondra had success, coming her way, as a singer, and even performed with Manilal, on a few occasion – not only in Colombo, but in California, as well.

She also won the Miss Working Girl contest, held in Colombo.

Due to the pandemic, Manilal does a duo scene now, performing at a five star venue, in the city, Sunday evenings.

He says he plans to hand- over the video of the song ‘Island In The Sun’ to the tourism authorities with the hope that his creation would do justice to their promotion of Sri Lanka.

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