Update on Aug 13, 12:45 pm ist
Tamil actor, professional dancer and photographer Sunder Ramu has dated 335 women in the past few years. But he says he is still 30 short of his target – 365 dates.
Although he’s divorced and “not averse to romance”, his dates are not all romantic ones – and his aim is not just to find love.
“I’m an absolute romantic. I’m looking for love every day, but the idea behind 365 dates is not to find women,” he told the BBC from his home in the southern Indian city of Chennai.
“What I’m trying to do is to raise awareness about women’s rights in India,” he says.
The actor, who did theatre before transitioning to Tamil and Malayalam films a decade ago, kicked off the project on 1 January 2015.
A trawl of his Facebook page tells the stories of women he went on a date with – his 105-year-old grandmother, a woman who collects rubbish from his apartment block, an Irish nun in her 90s, an actress, models, a yoga teacher, activists, politicians, and many others.
“I grew up in a family where women were respected and treated well. And I went to a school where there was no gender discrimination and boys and girls weren’t considered different. But when I stepped out into the world, I realised how deeply embedded gender differences were and it was a big culture shock to me,” he says.
The turning point for him was the Delhi gang-rape of December 2012 when a 23-year-old student was brutally assaulted on a bus in India’s capital.
“The incident churned my stomach. I couldn’t sleep for so many nights,” he says.
It also rankled when during holidays abroad, people would ask him, “why do Indians treat women so badly”?
“We always think that it’s the job of someone else, like the government or the NGOs, to fix what’s broken. But I began thinking what can I do to make a difference?”
And that’s where the idea of 365 dates came from.
“Men too have to be made a part of the solution. They have lots of misconceptions when they go dating, but women are not just legs and curves, each person is different from another.
“By writing about my conversations with my dates, I was trying to tell people: put yourself in the shoes of the other gender and walk a bit, and you’ll understand their problems a bit more,” he says.
Sunder Ramu announced the 365-dates project on 31 December 2014 on Facebook.
The women will have to “ask me out, plan, pick a place and pay for – or cook – the meal”, he wrote. At the end of each month, he said he would use the money he’d saved on meals to buy food for lesser-known charities.
Within minutes, a friend invited him for a lunch date on New Year’s Day.
His first dozen dates were with known people. By the 10th date, local press picked up his story and it spread, bringing in many more invitations. He was dubbed “The Dating King”, “the 365-dates man” and the “serial dater”.
In a country where arranged marriages are still the norm and dating is looked down upon as a “Western import”, his friends were “appalled”.
“Are you trying to show off that you know lots of women? What is wrong with you? You sound like a playboy,” they chided him.
“But I told them I’m putting it together for others to see. The idea is to start a conversation, ask questions, get another person’s perspective. My final objective is achieving gender equality.”
Since the project started, the actor has dated women from several countries and met his dates in different Indian cities, as well as in Vietnam, Spain, France, US, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
Although he describes each of his dates as “special”, he says one of his most magical dates was with his grandma, who passed away two years back, aged 109.
“I had grown up hearing her say that she wanted to ride in a Mercedes. So, I bought a Merc and went and picked her up from her home in the Kullanchavedi village. She hadn’t stepped out for 22 years, except to vote, since the death of my grandfather.
They went to the local temple and then drove to a lake to watch the sunset.
“She was a little bent with age, but all her faculties were in order. We wore matching aviators and she joked that if she were a bit younger, she’d give all my young dates a run for their money.”
“She was my grandma but this was the first time I had spent so much time alone with her. And I realised I wouldn’t have had this conversation with her if it wasn’t for the date.”
He also shared a meal with Sister Loreto, an Irish nun at a convent in Chennai.
“She was in her 90s and she told me it was her first date ever. She came to India to join the church when she was nine.”
Sunder Ramu says he had initially intended to go on 365 dates in a year, but a devastating flood in November 2015 that submerged many parts of Chennai forced him to stop. He resumed the following year, but decided to pace it.
“I’ve had lots of free meals with lots of beautiful women, and now it’s become a lifelong project. The idea is to keep the conversation going.”
I ask him if he thinks we are living in a more gender equal world today than when he started his project.
“I come from a very privileged space but to think that I can change a country and society so deeply rooted in patriarchy, I’d be kidding myself,” he says.
“But I believe you have to make a start somewhere. It’s not going to happen overnight, there’s no quick fix solution. It will probably take a couple of generations, but we have to start in our lifetime and keep at it.”