The gifted and versatile actor Gehan Cooray makes Sri Lanka proud with his Hollywood movie “Billionaire” . This movie was awarded at the prestigious Burbank International film recently.
This film was Gehan Cooray’s very own adaptation of George Bernard Show’s play ‘The Millionairess’ Gehan’s milestone in producing, writing the screen play and his portrayal in the title role were great achievements.
Based in Los Angeles, Gehan Cooray is also an actor, independent filmmaker and a classical singer. The film ‘The Billionaire’ was officially 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.
by Zanita Careem
How did you get involved in the movie The Billionaire”
At the tender age of three , my mother introduced me to Classic Hollywood films like ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Mary Poppins’, which left an indelible impression on my mind. Throughout my childhood, I was struck by how movies could offer the viewer a form of audio-visual escapism that was practically unrivalled. However, since there was no English film industry in Sri Lanka, I grew up performing on the stage, and didn’t seriously consider becoming a filmmaker until I attended the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.
USC of course has the best cinematic arts school in the world, producing such Hollywood luminaries as George Lucas. Although I majored in Theatre and Psychology, I took as many cinema classes as I possibly could, and discovered a knack for filmmaking through class projects and such. It was several years after graduating from university, however, that a chance meeting with the famous director Jon Favreau in Hollywood set me on my current trajectory. Seeing my USC sweatshirt, he asked me if I was a filmmaker. My instinct at the time was to say “I’m an Actor and a Singer, but not really a filmmaker” – and yet, I subsequently said to myself….”If Mr. Favreau thinks I look like I could be making films, on top of being a performer, why not give it a go, since I’ve had such an excellent foundation at USC anyway?”
I started with a few short films, which got into some big film festivals in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Having received that kind of recognition for my work, my mother felt it was time for me to take the plunge and make a feature length film – which is what led to “THE BILLION AIRE”. I wanted to make a film that hearkened back to the elegance and sophistication of the Old Hollywood films I grew up watching.
How long did you take to make research and make the film?
It took several years. It was definitely a marathon, not a sprint, and it sometimes felt like I would never reach the finish line, honestly, but by the Grace of God, I finally did, overcoming all kinds of obstacles that seemed insurmountable to the point of despair at the time – but my Patience and Perseverance won out.
What were the key challenges in making ‘The Billionaire’
I had a number of people try to take advantage of me and bleed me dry in the most unscrupulous of ways, and so I would say the key challenge was finding the right collaborators whom I could really trust, and who had the film’s best interests in mind, versus their own best interests. This is always a challenge when you are producing a film as an independent filmmaker.
On a more artistic note, editing the film also proved to be a challenge. The first cut of the film was 2 hours 40 minutes. It took me a long time to find an editor who could help me bring the film under two hours, without sacrificing the main essence and thrust of the story. It was someone at Warner Bros. Studios who referred me to such an editor, who understood what I was trying to accomplish with the film, and respected my vision, without merely slicing and dicing the footage.
Working and producing the movie in Hollywood, tell us your first time experience
The difference between making a short film and making a feature film is like the difference between crawling and running a marathon, and so the short films I had so successfully made prior to THE BILLIONAIRE did not prepare me for what was to come. What helped me from beginning to end, however, was the strength of my artistic convictions – I was not just trying to make a movie, as so many do, but create a work of art that had literary, dramatic and musical merit. The whole process might have been somewhat intimidating, had I not had believed so completely in what I was doing.
Is digital technology and opportunity or a threat?
Digital technology is certainly an opportunity for so many young creative people, but it can also be a threat because anyone can make anything and upload it online – regardless of their level of education or their artistic abilities. Hence, there is such an overabundance of content available online digitally, that finding a work of quality these days can be akin to finding a needle in a haystack. I am still adamant about releasing my film in cinemas first, before taking the digital route, because there is a level of quality control and discernment in cinemas that sadly can’t be found in the digital sphere.
What inspired you to produce and star in ‘The Billionaire’?
I wanted to produce and star in a feature film that portrayed South Asians like myself in an empowered manner, first and foremost. Too often, we see South Asians portrayed in a somewhat subservient manner in Western cinema. My Godmother in Colombo, Nishanthi Perera Pieris, had told me about George Bernard Shaw’s play “The Millionairess”, which was quite progressive in the 1930s, depicting an empowered and thoroughly independent female character. I realized that, by changing the gender and turning the 1930s millionairess into a 21st century billionaire of South Asian descent, I could represent my race in a truly formidable manner. Also, since I grew up watching “My Fair Lady”, which was also adapted from a George Bernard Shaw play, I felt an immense affinity to the kind of language that Shaw utilizes. It was a secondary goal of mine to showcase to the world that a South Asian actor like me could speak the Queen’s English as resplendently and majestically as any Caucasian actor.
What projects do you have coming up?
I am working on adapting an operetta to the big screen, as well as another play which is a more dramatic version of an old fairytale. I wouldn’t be able to produce either project as an independent filmmaker however. I would need to partner with a studio. On a more independent level, I am envisioning a project that might be shot in Sri Lanka, with a big Hollywood actor or actress starring in the film alongside me. Hopefully all of the above comes to fruition.
I have recorded my first album, which will be released in 2021. It was produced by Grammy Award winning musician Hussain Jiffrey, and features Operatic Arias, French and Italian Classical Melodies, as well as Old English Songs from the late 19th century and early 20th century Broadway Musicals. I can’t wait to share this with the world.
Why the movie stresses on Asexuality.
The movie stresses on Asexuality because I myself identify as an Asexual gentleman. This is something which most people are completely unaware of, because so much emphasis is placed on Heterosexuality and Homosexuality. I wanted audiences to become aware of the fact that not everyone likes, needs, or wants sex. I for one, most certainly do not. In THE BILLIONAIRE, for example, the title character whom I portray is attracted to men romantically, but not sexually, which means that none of his relationships are ever consummated – not even after marriage. Since this reflects my own disposition, I felt it was important to showcase to the world at large that two people can fall in love and even get married, but remain essentially pure and chaste. This is a beautiful and sublime thing.
In George Bernard Shaw’s original play ‘The Millionairess’, the title character’s pride and self-worth seemed to derive almost entirely from her wealth and status. I thought this was a rather flimsy characterization, especially in the 21st century, when the Class system is considered somewhat archaic, and so I thought it would be dramatically and psychologically fascinating if my character – THE BILLIONAIRE – drew HIS pride and self-worth as much from his chastity and purity, as he did from his status and wealth. An Asexual person is quasi-angelic, in the sense that such an individual has no desire for a sexual connection with anyone, and I felt this was a much stronger reason for my character to be so proud – above and beyond being rich and upper class.
A lot of people in the LGBTQ community have role models in the media to look up to these days, but Asexual individuals do not have those same role models as yet, unfortunately, and I thought it was high time we changed that.
“ForHer” campaign for breast cancer awareness
As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Street Burger -home of Sri Lanka’s original gourmet burger-, launched its inaugural annual “ForHer” initiative, in collaboration with the Indira Cancer Trust and Suwara Arana -the first paediatric palliative care centre in Sri Lanka. The campaign kicked off on the 1st of October, and for the entire month the restaurant chain committed to donating a portion of every order placed at its outlets towards breast cancer research, medication, and support.
The ForHer campaign was initiated with the intention to not just raise funds, but also increase awareness on breast cancer – the most common type of cancer among females in Sri Lanka-, with the aim to also create a real and tangible impact on how we can steer conversations on the disease to the focus. Throughout the month of October and at all of its outlets –Bambalapitiya, Ethul Kottte, and Mt.Lavinia-, employees wore the iconic pink ribbon as part of their uniform, and all Street Burger customers were given the opportunity to participate and support this health campaign just by purchasing a meal.
“The statistics on breast cancer in Sri Lanka are alarming,” said Mafas Saheer, Operations Manager of Street Burger. “The launch of our ForHer campaign was our way of honouring the women in our communities, and doing our part to provide as much support as we can by raising both awareness and funds for the cause.”
Although launched to coincide with “Pink Ribbon Month”, Street Burger hopes to keep the campaign going well beyond October, with more initiatives to educate and engage its customers and the public for the benefit of all women in Sri Lanka.
Born from humble beginnings from a food truck on Marine Drive, but bolstered by a passion for innovation and love for burgers, Street Burger has now cemented for itself a reputation as the pioneers of gourmet burger culture in Sri Lanka. Street Burger sources the freshest premium-quality ingredients for the preparation of its intensely flavoursome and wide range of signature hand-crafted burgers, fries, and shakes – all made in-house; contributing to the ultimate gourmet burger experience. The brand now operates from three dine-in outlets across Colombo: Bambalapitiya, Ethul Kotte, and Mt. Lavinia.
Top bridal designer of today
Indi’s bridal designs design are renowned for its distinctive use of colours, quality of fabrics, intricate embroideries and a glorious rich Sri Lanka culture.Indi is included in the list of best Sri Lankan bridal designers and she is one designer who is acknowledged on the international pedestal for her different and unique designs of bridal ensembles. Her designs are elegant, her taste heavily inspired by local culture
Indi’s reimagination of traditions and styles is what sets her apart. And rightly so according to her the quintessential Indi’s bride is the one who’s self assured, highly confident and well aware of the craft and art.
A bridal attire is no charm if it is not designed under the signature label of popular designers. Indi is one designer whose collection provides ease with style. She creates magic when she puts together her mind and creativity to design any bridal attire.
To the Ends of the Earth
by Rajiva Wijesinha
Before the recent publication of Off the Beaten Track, Godage & Bros in this same year produced To the Ends of the Earth, yet another book by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha about his travels in exotic places.
That earlier book looked at four continents, North and South America, Africa and Asia but, as the title indicates, it was about the lesser known extremities of those areas. Beginning with Brazil, the book explores seven countries in South America, and also Mexico and three other countries in Central America along with three in the Caribbean. The travels there began in 1986 and concluded in 2019 with a journey to Bolivia.
That first visit hooked him as it were with the range of people and places he saw, for Brazil ‘struck me not as a melting pot, where everyone strives to settle within particular confines, but rather as a sort of fondue, where individual fiavours can be retained, while a common thread that provides reassurance adheres to each segment.
Being in effect a continent rather than a country does help. There is room for the Teutonic farmers of Rio Grande do Sul, with their expansive ranches and the fabulous churrascarias where one can pig oneself on all sorts of meats cooked in all sorts of ways, while animated conversations, characteristically Latin one would say, flow from all the tables around one; the blacks can have their energetic carnivals in Salvador, only to be outdone by the range of races in Rio who have made a multi-ethnic version of that art form emphatically their own; the mestizos, initially those of mixed American Indian and white blood, grow increasingly darker as one moves northward, and one finds too groups of oriental Indians and Chinese, adding their own characteristics to the mix; while out in the Mato Grosso and the Amazon areas to the west, pure Indians still live, some with lifestyles just the same as those their ancestors had practised for generations before Columbus sailed. ‘
In Peru and Ecuador he found fascinating the blend of Indian art and Christian imagery, the San Ignacio Chapel in Arequipa, decorated by a devoted Indian artist in murals that recreated the delicate plumage of tropical birds, in natural dyes that had survived over two hundred years, later the statues and pillars in many churches in Quito, the exciting capital of Ecuador.
But what entranced above all in this continent was the magnificent civilization of Aztecs and Incas and above all the Mayas. In Mexico he had a glimpse of a continuity of culture when at the great pyramids of Teotihuacan he came across a ritualistic dance, hundreds of young men dressed in evocative traditional costumes, headbands and elaborate cloaks, bare strips of cloth at the waist and intricate leggings, moving or rather stamping energetically in a complex rhythm, up and down, forward and back, persistently, powerfully, to the relentless beating of drums. They continued while he climbed up the pyramids of both the Sun and the Moon, and were still at it when he got back, an absolutely breathtaking sight, close up as well as from the heights that placed the pattern in even more vivid perspective.
And then there were the Mayas, the Temple of the Magician at Uxmal, a pyramid that somehow also had an oval shape, that took his breath away. That motivated another visit, this time to Guatemala, where a helpful consul at the border let him in without a visa to see the great complex at Tikal, deep in the jungle, which he wandered through on his own, to the sounds and sights of exotic birds, toucans and coucals and the colourful Peten turkey.
There were also other sorts of jungle adventures, jumping into the confluence of the two rivers that make up the Amazon at Manaos, fishing for piranhas for supper in the Kumaseva river near Iquitos in Peru, walking in the jungle there while his guide swung on lianas Tarzan fashion in dripping rain.
There are jungle trips in Africa too, crowded safaris in Tanzania and Uganda, tailor made trips in Mozambique and Angola, which allowed for lingering over glorious sunsets over river and sea. More unusual were the religious fantasies of Ethiopia, what was supposed to be the palace of the Queen of Sheba at Axum, the Debre Dammo monastery which had to be reached by climbing a rope, which he was dissuaded from trying to do, a long trek up a steep hill to see the Mariam Korka church, an impressive small building with wonderful paintings on its walls, and its neighbour the Daniel Korka church which required slithering along an open cliff.
There were too the fantastic rock hewn churches of Lalibela, and the monasteries nearby, one a long cave under a rocky ledge, with pilgrims clad in white and swaying gently to the relentless gentle rhythm of wonderful chanting. And there were beautifully illustrated bibles, which the priest held open for inspection without allowing them to be touched. These, and exotic crosses, which you were permitted to kiss, were drawn from ramshackle cupboards with total nonchalance.
Then there was rocking across the crocodile infested Nile in a coracle in Sudan, to see the multiple remains on Sai Island, a temple from the days of the pharaohs, a Byzantine Cathedral and the remains of an Ottoman fort. And nothing had prepared him for the pyramids of the Sudan, not one cluster but two, framed against a large rock at Karima, framed against the sunset at Begrawiya. That had followed a sight of whirling dervishes far outside Khartoum, a whole host walking round and round the open area in the middle, whirling and chanting, while the surrounding crowd joined in what seemed a marvelous frenzy.
Lions and hippos in the Serengeti pale in comparison, though that visit to Tanzania also included the beautiful architecture of Zanzibar and its quaint palaces. As exotic was the hilltop capital of King Moshoeshoe in Lesotho, a surprisingly beautiful country, which even boasted dinosaur footprints.
The Asian sections, looking only at the island nations in the east, provide equally unusual experiences, including ferries through the Moluccas islands, ending in New Year on a far away beach in the Kea Islands, abounding in giant tortoises and colourful starfish.
There were several visits to the Philippines, but the most exciting was the first, when he explored on his own, taking a bus up to Baguio and then to the underground caves at Sagada and the terraced rice fields of Banaue. Very different were several meetings with Ninoy Aquino, President of the Philippines from 2010, including a lunch when he had to make conversation in lieu of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister who gazed blandly into the middle distance.
The range of experience is splendidly illustrated, pages of lively colour and black and white pictures which capture the lines of the different arts and crafts of the different continents.
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