One in a billion! | Daily News

One in a billion!

Gehan Cooray
Gehan Cooray

During a phase when the whole world has practically come to a standstill and daily life is disrupted as people scramble to follow ‘new normal’ rules, Gehan Cooray’s achievement enters like a breath of fresh air.

The Los Angeles-based actor and independent filmmaker of Sri Lankan linage recently announced that his new romantic comedy, ‘The Billionaire’, has been officially submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well as to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, after becoming eligible for both Oscar and Golden Globe Award nominations. This is a rare feat indeed and a much yearned for the silver lining in an industry which has been torn apart by the global pandemic.

“It is practically unheard of for an independent filmmaker like me to be able to submit their first feature film to the most esteemed entities in the film industry all on their own for awards consideration. Usually, it is a big studio or a major distribution company that submits films to the Oscars and Golden Globes, so the fact that I was able to do so single-handedly as “Gehan Cooray” is an achievement I am very proud of,” Cooray unfurled his thoughts about how the global spotlight fell on ‘The Billionaire’.

Cooray’s film was awarded the Best Comedy Feature Award at the Burbank International Film Festival (BIFF) and was also selected as a finalist for the Best Feature Film overall at the festival. Directed by Michael Philip, Cooray has penned the screenplay for the project based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, ‘The Millionairess’.

Resplendent and majestic

“I loved how formidable and indomitable the title character in ‘The Millionairess’ was, and felt like that was precisely the kind of character that I should portray in my very first feature film because I believed very firmly that I should represent us South Asians in the most empowered light possible. One of my mentors in Sri Lanka, Indu Dharmasena, made me realize at a very young age that Gender is a rather artificial and arbitrary social construct, and hence, I knew that I could easily flip the gender of a female character around, and convey the essence and spirit of the character as a male. This is what inspired me to transform Shaw’s original millionaires into Gehan Cooray’s billionaire,” he elaborated.

“Shaw’s language is second to no other playwright in the 20th century, and he has the most remarkable ability to make English sound resplendent and majestic even when it’s spoken by the most disagreeable of characters. The character that I portray in the film is not a very agreeable person, to say the least - he is haughty, disdainful and at times very cold - and yet I wanted to make the viewers realize that the type of language a person uses, and their manner of expression, can make even the most spiteful of statements sound poetic. The art of conversation and the art of debate have been mostly lost in the 21st century, where children seldom seem to be taught how to speak in a cultured and sophisticated manner. I wanted to bring that back because that is how I was raised to speak myself. It doesn’t matter how wealthy one is unless one can communicate properly, and I use the word “proper” in a very literal sense,” he said.

Patricia Danaher, an Irish member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who happens to be a juror for the Golden Globes, reached out to Cooray while he was quarantining in Sri Lanka for a brief interview with him about ‘The Billionaire’ for the Golden Globes website. Since the production was based on Shaw’s work, it has kindled Danaher’s interest and she had enjoyed it immensely.

“I felt like I had started to “arrive” in Hollywood, so to speak. Hearing how much she enjoyed and admired the film felt like an outstanding victory for me in its own right. This is a lady who has interviewed George Clooney and Barbra Streisand after all!” he enthused.

Cooray was recently notified that ‘The Billionaire’ will be going live under “Best Picture” in the Academy Screening Room, the members-only site where Oscar voters stream films submitted for nominations. He noted that whether or not he gets a nomination really isn’t much of a concern to him as he is happy that in being allowed the opportunity to stream it as such, he can ensure that people will get to see it.

“The Oscar voting members are not allowed to reach out to filmmakers personally in the same manner, but to know that they are now able to watch my film on the Academy Screening Room - which is their own exclusive online streaming platform - under the ‘Best Picture’ category (and all accompanying categories) is enough to give me goosebumps because regardless of the final outcome, the fact that the very best people in the industry are able to get to know my work as an independent filmmaker is also worth its weight in gold to me. Especially because they can get to know me as a screenwriter, executive producer, lead actor, and operatic singer, all under one roof so to speak, with this one film,” Cooray explained adding that the Oscar submissions team has been exceedingly kind and gracious to him every step of the way.

“When I told them that filling out all the requisite paperwork was far less daunting than I had thought it would be, they said I would be surprised at how seldom they hear that. I think what helped me is the fact that I always approach every single thing I do in life in a very logical and systematic manner, step by step. Also, I begin with the end in mind, as much as possible, so I knew right from the get go that I didn’t just want to make a feature film, but the kind of feature film that would be eligible for the Academy Awards,” he said.

There is no doubt that Cooray is exceptional at his craft. He is also a Classical Baritone singer, who is equally at ease performing Operatic repertoire as he is performing Broadway Musical Theatre repertoire. He has performed in a great many operas, operettas, and musicals, and staged many solo concerts in both Sri Lanka and America.

Practically unparalleled

“My greatest concert to date was at Carnegie Hall in New York, which is the premier location for any singer to perform, of course. This concert was attended by the Chief of Cabinet to the United Nations Secretary General, and by nearly 100 other U.N diplomats and ambassadors, as well as many music lovers in New York. Carnegie Hall has 3 halls, and I performed at their second largest hall - I believe I am the only Sri Lankan singer to have done a solo concert there - and what I am proudest of is the fact that I did not need a microphone at any point in my 2-hour concert. Of course, the acoustics at a place like Carnegie Hall is practically unparalleled, although some singers still need to use a microphone because I suppose they haven’t received the kind of training that I have,” he revealed adding that his first album will be released later this year as well. It features Operatic Arias, Classical melodies, and Vintage songs, including a few numbers from very old Broadway musicals. It was recorded in Los Angeles with a Grammy Award-winning musician named Hussain Jiffrey.

Speaking about his project for which he is also the executive producer, Cooray says ‘The Billionaire’ depicts Chaste, Pure, Asexual relationships and marriages between members of the same sex.

“I am an Asexual individual myself, and what being Asexual means is that one has zero interest in sex. When an Asexual person is attracted to someone else, the attraction is purely romantic - there is nothing sexual about it. I might admire the other person aesthetically, and of course, feel a strong emotional or psychological attraction, but my mind never ventures into the realm of sexual intercourse. An Asexual mind like mine is simply not wired that way. I never ever “undress” anyone in my mind, however attractive they might be, unlike heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual men. Kissing and Cuddling are the only extents to which my attraction towards anyone would ever escalate - and this is precisely what I wanted to portray in ‘The Billionaire’,” he expressed.

However, he points out that this is different from being Celibate or Abstinent by the way.

“An Asexual individual like me, or like the character I portray in my film, does not have to “sacrifice” or “give up” their sexual needs in order to remain Chaste and Pure. Rather, Chastity and Purity are the natural, comfortable, effortless states of being for us, because we are somehow exempt from the biological need for sex that most people are born with. In the same way, some people do not like certain types of food, an Asexual person like myself simply does not like sex or want sex. And yet, I could have a romantic relationship with someone that is very innocent and wholesome.

The reason I decided to make the story of my film a same-sex story rather than an opposite-sex story is to highlight the fact that an Asexual romance or marriage is essentially like a romanticized friendship. It is a deep friendship with only the pure elements of romance like kissing and cuddling involved; without any of the R-rated sexual elements. When most people see two members of the same sex kissing, they automatically assume that they must be having sex because their own minds are probably wired to be sexual - so what I wanted to portray here was that asexual people could fall in love with each other and for the thought of having sex to never even cross their mind. This has always been my reality, and I thought it was high time I highlight this in a feature film,” he said.

Chastity and Purity

Since the relationships and marriages depicted in the film are Asexual, and not homosexual, Cooray doesn’t see why there should be too much controversy surrounding his film. Even though he depicts the same gender people falling in love and getting married, it is made abundantly clear in the film that these people will never have sex - their Asexual minds are practically anti-sex.

“If anything, I think any backlash I might get is from people who feel like I am promoting a very puritanical agenda, one that is practically the polar opposite of a homosexual agenda. Some people are uncomfortable with the promotion of Chastity and Purity, especially when they are depicted as the natural state for an Asexual person because they feel like it is an indirect indictment of sex. However, my goal is simply to make people aware of the fact that not everyone needs sex. Some of us never even think about it, and yet so many people in countries like Sri Lanka especially are practically forced to have sex, because they are conditioned to think that it is compulsory in any relationship and especially in a marriage. I hope my film emboldens and empowers other Asexuals like me to make their voices heard as well,” he stressed.

Cooray is working on adapting an operetta and another play to the big screen.

“I will also definitely continue doing my solo concerts, in both Sri Lanka and America, as soon as theatres are open again. I do have plans to stage some non-musical plays as well, in both countries - namely some of my favourite plays by Aeschylus, Oscar Wilde, and Shakespeare. I have a great affinity for the Classics, and see myself as primarily a Classical Actor, on top of being a Classical Singer. I feel like I have a duty to all the great playwrights and composers to keep performing and promoting the Classical repertory of music and drama,” he said.

Queried how he would feel if his work managed to clinch a Golden Globe or Oscar award and Cooray adds that it would be a victory, not only for him personally but also for Sri Lanka as a whole.

“I made it a point to mention on the Oscars’ streaming platform, where my film is currently featured, that I am a Sri Lankan American - so I feel like I am representing the land of my birth, as much as I am representing myself and my chosen art forms. In America, I would hope that such a historic acceptance and victory would also encourage more actors and singers to study the Classical Acting and Singing techniques that I have espoused in ‘The Billionaire’. There are very few young actors and singers who practice and promote both consistently in the modern world, and I would be thrilled if my film could inspire more people to discover the richness of those traditions,” he mused.

Though the film was going to hit theatres in February, cinemas remained closed due to the pandemic. The Laemmle Theatres - L.A’s premiere independent cinema chain, founded by Universal Studios’ progenitor Carl Laemmle - will release ‘The Billionaire’ on their Virtual Cinema platform on February 19.

In Sri Lanka, Ceylon Theatres will be distributing the film in several different cinemas, as soon as it becomes safer to attend movie theatres - probably no later than March.

“I can’t describe how thrilling it is for me to be able to share ‘The Billionaire’ with my fellow Sri Lankans on the big screen, the way feature films were always meant to be seen, with the cinematic grandeur and splendour that no computer or TV screen could ever hope to come anywhere close to. I am also very proud of the fact that theatregoers will be able to see something of quality and intellectual substance, based on a George Bernard Shaw text, after such a lengthy closure of cinemas, rather than something crassly commercial, or frivolous, or profane, as so many modern films are,” he concluded with a smile.