The TV in my office mostly plays National Geographic documentaries. This serves two purposes. For one, it takes my mind off the pressures of work and two, it makes me appear more like a suave, sensitive intellectual rather than the killer-diller that I am in my field.
Sir David Attenborough’s voice fills the room with magic…
..The treating of the hunt like a craft, the carefulness of it, is one mark of what we often call a predator…
I believe there are lessons to be learned from the animal world, and it benefits me to slot people as per traits into different levels of the *trophic pyramid. This stereotyping or ‘thin slicing’ as per Malcom Gladwell helps me take quick decisions that can make or break my company. I, of course, am an apex predator who enjoys his hunt.
A Casanova since my college days, I had honed the art of being an effortless ladies man to perfection by the time I was well-settled in a career. I knew how to work each one of them; just one look and I could size up their vulnerabilities. For me, the fun of the chase was perhaps more exciting than the end result.
…Predators may actively search for or pursue prey or wait for it, often concealed… When prey is detected, the predator assesses whether to attack it…
It’s not really clear to me whether I chose my career, or the career chose me because of my particular skill set. However, I rose pretty quickly to a senior position in one of the most famous casting agencies in Bollywood. The environment here continues to be pretty conducive to my preying instincts. In fact, I even have my betas in place. They admire the way I walk, talk, and the way I go in for the kill whether it’s a business deal or an amorous interest. My mantra is ‘Search. Assess. Pursue. Handle’.
We have aspiring models and actresses visiting us with a thousand dreams in their eyes. Each of them believes that they are far better looking than every other woman around them but at the same time they are plagued by a nagging insecurity that leaves them feeling inadequate if they have to go without ample doses of admiration for a day or two. This paradox serves us well.
Of course, there are a few talented ones with higher goals than just getting regular doses of their brand of cocaine: ‘attention and moolah!’ Whatever the case, only a very few have any inkling about what it would really cost them. Negotiating the dark alleys that tunnel on towards limelight isn’t the common woman’s forte. Sadly, many fail the test and break before seeing any glimmer of fame. And that’s where we have positioned ourselves – just short of breaking point with a big shiny arrow pointing towards stardom!
We are their saviors! We know how to shape raw beauty or talent into something that could take the nation by storm. We can take a person and create a persona. We add the glitz and the glam that turn these young girls to stars. We are their passport to fame. So, it is only fair perhaps that we extract our pound of flesh when the timing is right. That is the privilege of my gender after all, or isn’t it?
One can scoff all one wants, but underneath the thin veneer of male decency is a Y chromosome that’s hardwired for power games. We mark, claim and devour by instinct.
The predator inside me stirred the instant I saw her walking in. It recognized vulnerability from a mile.
I took out a cigarette and tapped it on the packet as I studied her. This was my tic perhaps. I had caught myself doing this every time I identified a new prey. Mahesh, one of my betas, watched me intently and then turned his swivel chair in the direction of my gaze. The blinds to my cabin remain open whenever one of my betas is in for a discussion. We look out into our jungle and admire the many gazelles when we are in need of a break from brainstorming.
Her feet hurt. Those 4-inch heels only looked expensive, but bit into her feet like the jaws of a shark. She had learned to take all of this in her stride.
“Il faut souffrir pour être belle” she mumbled the French adage under her breath.
She had finally scraped enough resources to have a portfolio done. That was the first step. Now, she was at step two: the plush office of a premier casting agency in town – Limelight Pvt. Ltd.
The queue was long; they were casting for the female lead of a multi-starrer film. The details hadn’t been revealed, but she was thrilled to have even received that call asking her to be present for the audition.
She walked up to the reception desk and was handed a few pages with the instructions to memorize them before her turn. This was a cold read, she would only get an hour or two perhaps to read, assess and then portray the character marked out in the excerpt handed to her.
She had a good memory, so that wasn’t the difficult part. The difficult part was actually landing the ‘part’! She sighed.
She was born beautiful and intelligent, but sadly she wasn’t born into money! When her small town got too stifling for her, she decided to move to a bigger pond to try her luck. She would’ve liked to say she didn’t believe in luck, but what was it that wiped out the dinosaurs from the face of this Earth if not bad luck? Anyway, life was a game of snakes and ladders. Sometimes you got a ladder and sometimes you met a snake. In her 23 years, she had made peace with that fact and had understood that both events were temporary till she reached her goal. That was the maxim that governed the rules of the game as she played it.
She looked at the other girls who were there for the audition just to check out the competition. Some of them were known faces from page 3 articles. She focused on the script and quite liked the character that she was auditioning for – fiery, ambitious and a little bit cheeky perhaps. Quite like her! She smiled.
She looked around now to check the playing field. The audition was probably happening inside some closed room with lights and a camera set up. That’s when she spotted them behind the glass doors: two men studying her intently. She held their gaze till one of them was uncomfortable enough to look away. She knew predators when she saw them, and she knew how the chase would go.
Mahesh turned his swivel chair back towards me and raised an eyebrow. This girl had looked vulnerable at first, but …! Would his boss still be interested?
…most predators seek a range of prey and do not feed on only one type of animal…
Well I was. She was trying to play me! That was amusing. I picked up the phone and asked Mala at the reception which role was being auditioned for right then. I instructed her on which three girls were to be sent in last for the audition, and that I would be sitting in during that time.
Without much thought, I went about the next hour or so looking through contracts, calling up clients and snagging deals. It was only when Mala called that I remembered I had another game to play.
One of the girls was already at her audition and faltered as I made an entry. I took my seat behind the camera and looked at the footage before asking her to go again. The girl was visibly a little nervous with me in the room. But this wasn’t the prey that I was interested in. I was just letting the others in the room get used to my presence, so that everything seems routine when my prey finally enters.
Mala sent the girl in. She must’ve spotted me in the room, but her hesitation lasted for such a fleeting moment that the others only saw her striding in confidently to the centre of the room and smiling at all of us behind the camera. The lights and camera were focused perfectly on her giving her skin the sheen of silk. My thoughts wandered as I let my gaze slowly travel down from her face to her neck and stop at the slight cavity between her shoulder blades. Just enough to hold an ice cube.. I couldn’t help thinking to myself. She fiddled with her delicate pendant chain as she stretched her neck a little higher as if on cue, accentuating that depression.
As per the drill, she gave her name and telephone number before she began delivering her lines.
‘Sabara’, so that was her name! Mmmm
Her face switched expressions and gave a performance that almost had us in awe! She was good at her craft, this girl!
“Can we have another take”, I looked unimpressed as I yelled out at the youngster taking the shot.
Then I looked at her challengingly.
She nodded, took a deep breath and delivered the lines to perfection again, but this time with a slight variation.
“Okay! That’ll do. Can you wait at the reception for a bit?” I asked her cocking an eyebrow.
She looked at her watch. Another audacious move!
“If you’re in a hurry, you can leave.”
‘I’ll wait.” She said and left the room.
Sabara waited at the reception; a thousand things running through her mind. It was going to be the same story this time around too. She had made a mistake at the last agency by being reactive. This time she had to change her stance.
The TV in the reception area was on mute, but she could read the subtitles.
“Huh! National Geographic! Really? In a casting agency?”
..A wolf stealthily stalking a rabbit…A beautiful shot… The sunset, the grass, the birds… but sadly, all of them were going to be just mute spectators!
… Although antipredator behavior carries the important benefit of increasing an animal’s chances of avoiding predation, it can incur significant costs. Time spent hiding or being vigilant limits the amount of time animals have available for other important activities, such as foraging or searching for mates…
“How ironical!” she smirked to herself.
It isn’t all that different in her world, is it? How is a woman to go out there and make a mark if all her focus is on warding off undue attention from powerful males? For them it was a game of power and lust. For her, it was a game of survival where quite a bit of her energy went into avoiding their advances with either an evasive action or a retaliatory one. She was tired of this.
She knew he would keep her waiting for a while before making an appearance. From his point of view, he was holding her hostage. He had judged that she was desperate for a job and perhaps needed money and he was going to make her beg for both. She checked her purse for her pepper spray and pen knife, just in case!
He came out of the audition room and passed her by in the reception showing no signs of recognition. Then as though it was a sudden afterthought, he did a rather pronounced half turn and addressed her.
“Please join me in my office, there’s something we need to discuss…Oh, wait! I haven’t had time to grab lunch. Why don’t you join me? We can discuss the role then.”
“Have I got the part then?” asked Sabara cheekily.
“You’re shortlisted! Congratulations!” With that he looked at his watch and then at her.
She picked up the cue and her purse and followed him out of the office into the elevator.
That is when his stance changed. Like they had entered a world from which she did not have any escape.
He leaned against the wall and gave her a look from top to bottom.
“All natural? Or are you wearing padding?” He asked with a straight face.
“Excuse me?” Sabara managed to sound horrified.
He smirked. “Well, I need to know. There are some bold scenes in the film…”
He paused for effect and then continued, “You know this is going to be a once in a lifetime chance for you, right? You’re lucky that crazy old Mehboob wants a fresh face for this role. I know for a fact that Shilpa and Kat would give an arm and leg for this role.
“Really?” asked Sabara managing to fake eyes full of awe!”
He nodded as he moved closer to her … “This face could be on every big billboard in the city… but do you have what it takes?”
“I think I identify with the character. I am willing to give it my all”
“Ah…willing. Thaaat’s a good girl!”
“I’ll turn this ordinary face into a face of a star!”
He moved closer and traced her face with his fingers running it down from her nose to her lips and down her neck.
“This face and …”
She grabbed his hand tight and stopped it from going any further down.
“Are you sure you can do it?” she challenged.
“It?” He looked at her amorously and leaned in so close that she could feel his cigarette breath on her neck.
“I have done it many times before, darling!”
“I mean, I know you have a hand in making Naima Khan what she is today, but who else after that?” Sabara asked in a composed voice ignoring the shortening distance between them as she glanced to check how many floors before the doors opened.
He took her hand in his and patted it. “Naima Khan followed everything I told her to do, will you?”
“If the role demands it” said Sabara with conviction.
“A role is only a small part of this industry darling. Networking…that is the game changer. And if you trust me, I can take you places you never imagined you’d ever reach.”
Sabara felt a knot in her stomach. She did not know how long she could hold him off or lead him on. The snake’s mouth was wide open and ready to swallow her. If only, luck would throw the dice to take her straight to a ladder.
‘I’m parched. So where are we going for lunch?”
“Where do you want to go?”
And with that question the ball was in the prey’s court. He had done this before… like a cat and mouse game.
Sabara couldn’t believe her luck! The dice had landed on the number she was waiting for! The doors to the lift opened like the curtains to a stage. Her game was on!
The #me too movement had just about started, but fools like this one still continued to believe that there was no bringing them down. Or was it their predatory risk-taking behavior? Either way, luck had turned in her favour.
“I happen to be good cook, besides being a good actress. You’ve seen me act… would you like to taste what I have in my lunch box?” She asked with an innocent smile
“Your place?” he asked
“Your office,” Sabara replied. “It’ll save you time and money, besides I would love to see the cabin which launched a thousand careers!”
She punched the button to take them back to the top floor.
This hadn’t been much of a chase for me, but why let a bird in hand get away. I put my arms around her shoulder and smelled her hair as the elevator ascended one floor after another.
“What’s in your lunch box for me?” I asked
“French delicacies. I work part-time at a French restaurant,” she teased.
“Does dessert include a French Kiss, then?” I was confident I was chasing her down the road I wanted. How was I to know this was a wrong turn…
He closed the door to his office and closed the blinds. David Attenborough’s commentary continued…
…The Venus Flytrap has a problem. It needs to avoid any false alarm… snapping shut on a little twig or raindrop. So how does it eliminate this problem? It does so by counting the number of touches…only after a certain number of touches does it give the final squeeze that eliminates its unfortunate victim…
Sabara let a little laugh escape . He looked puzzled.
And voila! She had reached step three.
“Maybe, it’s my turn now to make you famous!” she said as she showed him the recording from the spy camera on her pendant. He still looked puzzled.
“See, it’s the matter of just one call to Stardust. Either I call them and show them my #metoo story, or you call them with a bite that reads ‘Limelight Pvt. Ltd’s latest discovery Sabara Gupta’.”
With that Sabara took a selfie of them posing… the company Logo clearly visible behind them.
“Here’s dessert- eye candy for the readers of Stardust!”
Trophic Pyramid: A graphical representation of how food and energy flows from plants to top carnivores. The plants being the maximum in number at lowest trophic level forming the base of the pyramid and apex predators being the least in number comprising the peak of the pyramid.
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