New Delhi: Shakul Gupta, 31, is a techie who likes to do things for himself. He doesn’t work for anyone, and instead earns money through his own hustles. Similarly, to find the love of his life, he doesn’t rely on dating apps or matchmakers. Instead, he runs a social media campaign called ‘Boyfriend on Rent’.
Gurugram-based Gupta told ThePrint that his offer remains open all year, but he promotes his availability more in the run-up to Valentine’s Day because he gets lonely and wants a date, and women, too, look more actively for someone at this time.
He is clear that his services are neither commercial nor sexual. His sponsored Instagram post this year says he’s the kind of ‘boyfriend’ who likes “deep conversations” and “intimate dates”.
He promises a shoulder to lean on, a hug, some hand-holding, but nothing more risqué than that. When trolls ask him what he “charges” for his services, he gives answers like “just a smile”.
When he spoke to ThePrint on 9 February, Gupta said he “went on a date a few days back”, but didn’t share much else about the experience.
He gave little details about what exactly he does for a living, and how he manages to travel as frequently as he does. Gupta only said that he is a programmer who writes software code, and that he works for himself.
His Instagram bio says he is self-made and an entrepreneur, and has been to 16-plus countries. His account shows snippets from his trips to Thailand, Sri Lanka, Dubai, Nepal, and Russia.
“I love travelling,” Gupta says, and so he doesn’t mind going anywhere in the world for a date to potentially meet his true love.
So far, though, he hasn’t had much luck on that front. Since he started ‘Boyfriend on Rent’ in 2018, Gupta has been on “many, many dates”, but few have translated into long-term relationships, he said. It’s not for want of trying hard, though.
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A search for love — free iPhones to rent-a-date
Gupta’s quest for companionship first made news in 2017, when he reportedly gifted iPhones to five women whom he had “selected” for a date after a Facebook campaign.
When asked about this, he laughed: “If I’m not wrong, I had posted something like, if someone helps me find my true love, I will gift an iPhone.”
But he still couldn’t shake off his single status.
“Prior to 2018, I never had a girlfriend. All of my friends used to go on dates on Valentine’s Day. Me? I was all alone on Valentine’s Day. I used to think, ‘Shakul, something is wrong with you. Why don’t you have a date on V-Day?’”
So, in 2018, a then 26-year-old Gupta went on Facebook “around 8 or 10 February” and posted for the first time about being a boyfriend on rent.
This experimental post said “something like ‘I’m on rent, I can do the cooking, go for a drive’,” Gupta recalled. “I was thinking maybe there are girls out there looking for the same thing, who might be lonely as well. Who wants someone to listen to them.”
The next day, Gupta says he received “hundreds of messages”, followed soon by numerous dates.
The women who responded ranged in age from 20s to their 40s. About 20-25 per cent being 40-plus, Gupta says. Most respondents were from India, but there were also some from Malaysia and neighbouring countries.
Many, though, thought he was an escort — which is a misconception that has continued over the years. “Most of the time girls text me, how much?” Gupta says, and adds that he does not entertain those requests.
“This is not a commercial initiative. I don’t charge anything, and obviously they (the dates) do not charge me anything either.”
According to him, the legitimate women who message him generally “just want someone who could listen to them. They just want to spend time together”.
Gupta recounts how one girl he met for a coffee date was initially shy, but then opened up about her insecurities. “She said, ‘Shakul, I’m so insecure about my weight. No one really asks me out and you are the first one to meet me’.”
Through Boyfriend on Rent, Gupta did find a partner, but it was not to be. “I did meet someone special, and we dated for a while. But in the end, it didn’t work out, unfortunately.”
This is why he had paused Boyfriend on Rent in 2022. “I’m back!” says the newly single entrepreneur.
Gupta claims he is not bothered about a woman’s age or beauty, but honesty and loyalty are desirable qualities. “I think loyalty is rare these days. She should have a good sense of humour and we should vibe together.”
Gupta has no plans to stop his unconventional ways to find love. “Dating apps, I have tried many times, but it didn’t work out for me.”
On letting his parents arrange a match for him, he says: “I think I’m going to marry the one whom I love. I don’t want someone else to find the love of my life.”
Is India ready for rental boyfriends?
Gupta is quite unabashed but he does acknowledge that Indian society may not be ready for a ‘boyfriend on rent’ concept. Many equate the idea with escort services or prostitution.
When he first started in 2018, he says his friends would tease him. “They’d say, ‘Shakul, you are so desperate,” he recalls. There’s also the ubiquitous innuendo about “how much?” and “what’s your rent?”
His mother had been furious at first too. “‘Why are you doing this? Did we raise you in a bad way?’ she had asked,” he says. “She was more worried about what society will think of me. So I said I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m just talking and listening to more people.”
Gupta is not the only one to attempt the ‘renting a boyfriend’ model in India.
In August 2018, entrepreneur Kaushal Prakash launched an app and website titled ‘Rent A Boy|Friend’ (RABF). Three months later, he shut down the operation because of the “negativity” around the idea.
“Initially when we launched, we had positive coverage. But then there were other narratives on radio channels trolling us and saying things like ‘what next? Will it be girlfriend for rent?’,” Prakash told ThePrint. “I come from a business family and understandably they were not too happy with the negative perception. The negativity was not worth it so we ended up shutting it down.”
RABF charged Rs 500 per meet and had models like Suraj Dahiya available to meet as a “Boy|Friend”. But many people assumed it was a dating or escort service of some kind.
According to Prakash, the stylised way of writing “Boy|Friend” with a partition signalled that what was on offer was strictly “platonic”.
“What we were offering was very simply someone for you to speak to. It was supposed to be a purely platonic meet up. I started RABF because I was suffering from depression and realised there could be others like me who may want someone to talk to,” Prakash says.
“Where is the question of a boyfriend or girlfriend? This is a common concept in other countries. Countries even have rent a mother, father. But India just isn’t ready for it.”
RABF even had psychiatrists on board to counsel people, but the brand name overshadowed this. “Looking back, one mistake I made was the name. It gave people the wrong impression,” Prakash adds.
Another initiative in Bengaluru that started off with the name ‘ToYBoY Portal’ gained interest in August last year. The Instagram posts from its account said it provided boyfriends for hire in Bangalore.
All the depressed people in Bangalore I’ve got news for you pic.twitter.com/MdsqY1WQQE
— Confusedicius (@Erroristotle) August 9, 2022
ThePrint emailed the address provided in the account but no response was received.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
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