A road paved with laughter

Having faced a fair share of hurdles, bumps, and roadblocks on the way, Gehan Blok and Dino Corera are making sure that their journey to success is buffered with as many laughs as possible – their own as well as that of thousands of their fans.

by Thushanthi Ponweera

“Everyone thinks we are posh Colombo boys!” Gehan and Dino laugh as they say this like it’s the biggest joke ever. Although they were educated in two of Colombo’s more popular private boys’ schools, according to them, that’s where the similarities end. Both Gehan and Dino, now aged 32, grew up in regular homes with more than their fair share of struggles. Struggles, they say, that highlighted the need for humour.

An only child in a household impacted by domestic violence, growing up, Gehan would look for any excuse to be out of the house. This came in the form of theatre, and Gehan discovered his talent to entertain and imitate early on thanks to his school’s active drama scene. Acting also gave him a channel to transfer his talent of finding humour in everyday situations to a larger audience “I was often given the female roles in school, and if you’ve seen me acting as a female you would know how naturally it comes to me!” says Gehan. “For me, it was a coping mechanism almost. Looking back now, I was lucky it was that, instead of something self-destructive.”

Dino didn’t have it much easier either. He remembers how his family grappled with financial struggles and how his mother shielded the family during trying times. “Our mothers were victims of their circumstances, but that never kept them from taking care of us to the best of their abilities. They are our role models.” Both men hold their mothers in high esteem and speak of them with much love and appreciation. This is just one of the many things they have in common. When asked how they became such firm friends, Dino explains, “Both Gehan and I didn’t become friends till much later. But when we did, it was our unhappy childhood experiences that helped us empathise and relate with each other so easily. As well as the fact that we had both chosen acting and comedy as healthy outlets for all those negative emotions.”

Having grown up without financial security meant that they were both eager to become self-sufficient as soon as possible. “My mom’s salary was just fifteen thousand rupees, and she somehow made sure our monthly expenses never went beyond that,” Gehan says with a sense of awe. It was not without sacrifice. Gehan says he often chose to walk and save the few rupees it would take to catch the bus, among many other things. It built in him a sense of value for money as well as a drive to be successful. After completing his secondary education at St. Peters’ College, Gehan qualified as a Chartered Marketer. By 23 years he was heading the digital arm of Wijaya Newspapers a position he held for 8 years

Dino had big ambitions from the start. Having gone through open-heart surgery at four-and-a-half years old, he thought being a doctor would be a noble career path. Although he was a straight-A student throughout his school career at St. Joseph’s College, Dino switched to London A/Levels but was unable to pursue his higher studies in medicine. “We couldn’t afford private medical college, so I had to change course.” He doesn’t say this with any trace of self-pity which is a testament to his persistence in the face of challenges. He was able to get a scholarship to the University of Westminster via IIT in Sri Lanka for its Information Systems and Business Management degree. He funded his degree from earnings he received at TNL Radio as a part-time newsreader and side gigs including hosting events and voiceover work.  Even though it wasn’t his chosen field, Dino still achieved top marks and was Valedictorian of his batch. He went on to become news manager, head of digital media, and subsequently channel head at TNL Radio.

Both Gehan and Dino say that although they had steady day jobs, they were always on the lookout for ways to supplement what they say was a meagre salary, common to first pays in Sri Lanka despite your qualifications.  As the elder of two sons, Dino says he felt a huge sense of responsibility to take care of the family and provide for them as soon as he was able to. “I was earning only a little over five thousand, but to help out with household expenses and university tuition I had to more than ten times that amount,” he says and Gehan echoes similar sentiments. “I had to grow up faster than others my age and take on the responsibility of running a household at the age of 19 while paying for my education.” That’s where their careers as voicing artists began. “It pays well! A few minutes voicing a commercial was worth a few thousand which was a big deal back then,” Gehan is thankful to Neidra Williams for introducing him to build his reputation as a voice artist. “Being in theatre was something we did for passion and not for the money, but it did help us build the necessary skills and network to be where we are today,” adds Dino. Since then, they have voiced hundreds of radio and tv commercials.

Meanwhile, their reputation as seasoned thespians also grew. They have both acted in many theater productions and Gehan’s directorial debut in 2014 ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ –in which Dino incidentally played one of the main characters– was a great success. When asked which roles were their most memorable Dino says it was the role of M in Lungs. For Gehan, it was Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and the Lieutenant in Widows.

Speaking of how they got they got their start writing, producing, and acting as a duo, they say that although they have been friends for longer, it was only in 2018 that their career together was unofficially launched. This was when they co-hosted the press conference to launch that years’ ‘Battle of the Saints’ cricket tournament between St. Joseph’s and St. Peter’s for which they received a lot of positive feedback. Gehan and Dino had by now perfected comedy and were confident in their delivery of it. So, they decided to try out a new form of advertising. “Technically it is called ‘Advertainment’ where you figure out a subtle way of plugging in the brand to an otherwise independent piece of entertainment,” says Gehan. “We had this idea and wanted to execute it. It was just a matter of finding an adventurous client.” Soon after, they took on producing and directing a branded content video for Seylan Bank. The video went on to rack up thousands of views and shares and garnered Blok and Dino a much-coveted Gold for ‘Best Branded Content’ at the inaugural SLIM Digis.

This led to more requests by companies to promote their brands. “We definitely wouldn’t fall under traditional marketing, which most companies are used to. Surprisingly, some of the older brands were the first to come on board. This helped us gain credibility and created a demand.” This also meant they were able to be selective. “With time, we developed our own style, our own brand. So, if we felt that we would have to deviate too much from that and change what we stood for, we would turn down the request. We require a huge amount of creative freedom to come up with the best ideas and this means our clients need to trust us.”

The process is totally original and they both work extremely hard on each script. According to Dino, “We are both workaholics and share a similar work ethic. We call each other whenever creativity strikes, or if we get a new idea for revising or moving the story along, even if it’s in the middle of the night.” 

How did they become the YouTube sensations they are today? “Although our content is aimed at a targeted audience, our viewership extends way beyond that,” says Gehan of the viral popularity of their YouTube productions. Blok & Dino’s videos are usually on top of the trending ranks in Sri Lanka, within hours of being released. Dino adds, “I believe it’s the situations we highlight. They are unique to the Sri Lankan experience. We aren’t afraid to poke fun at ourselves and make our content relatable. Whether you’re young or old, living here or abroad, and whatever background you may come from, if you’re Sri Lankan you will most likely enjoy it. And although the misconception was that we are ‘posh Colombo boys’, judging by the comments it seems like we have been able to move past those stereotypes”

Becoming household names in the country does come with its share of perks. Or not. “This one is a true internet celebrity. He already has his share of obsessed fans,” grins Gehan pointing at his friend. “I have been told I need to get married soon, but it doesn’t look like the internet is going to lead me to true love. I mean, I thought prank calls were a thing of the past. If you want me to like you, breathing heavily on the phone probably won’t cut it!” laughs Dino. Gehan apparently doesn’t face the same problem, as he is ‘happily off the market’ and married to his childhood sweetheart, Shaziya.

When speaking of industry pitfalls, Gehan and Dino say that undercutting is one of the biggest. “It is an ugly habit some creatives have, to keep their rates lower than their competitors just to get the business. While this is obviously unfair to the more experienced players, it is also harmful to themselves. If we have one piece of advice to those who want to make it in this industry, it’s this- know your worth. Value yourself enough to price yourself on par with the industry standard. Working for cheap harms everyone in the long run. You may get the gig now, but you are lowering what is considered the average price point and this means creative work such as ours may fall into that dreaded ‘doesn’t pay enough’ career bucket.”

The duo instead hopes to pave the way for those aspiring to follow in their path. They have plans to start their own production studio through which they want to begin producing series and movies. “There are so many options now. You don’t need to limit yourself or your audience. Companies such as Netflix and Amazon are changing how television works, and are actively looking for diverse content.”

Their persistence, ambition, and resilience were borne through their individual life experiences. They both understand how difficult life can be, or how depressing the world can get. As Gehan says, “We can choose to cry about it or laugh about it. Or better yet, we can make someone else laugh.” That is just what they have done, and thanks to their never-give-up attitude, will hopefully continue to do in the foreseeable future.