The waiting room is abuzz with gossip about Sakshi Rai and her faux pas at a recent talk show. Riding on the success of her fifth consecutive super-hit film, she had ridiculed a rival’s unflattering body shape.

“No wonder this campaign about body positivity was cooked up within a month of the controversy. Why do you think the brand suddenly wants dusky, chubby, curly-haired women flanking Sakshi?” a model says in low tones.

“It’s all a whitewash campaign, meant to make Sakshi look more inclusive and to offset the beating her brand image has taken owing to the backlash in the media. Ironically, the duskier you are, the better,” another one adds.

“I even applied extra bronzer to look the part!” confesses a third.

The trio chuckle as they scan the models streaming in through the front door, until one of them says, “This could take all day. I don’t want to miss my audition at Mickey Taneja’s studio later today because I’m waiting for my turn here. It’s not every day that one gets a call from his casting office, and that too for a primary character. Another hour, tops, and I’m out of here.”

Someone scurries out of the studio and thunders, “Silence! There is an audition in progress.”

As the door shuts, the noise level in the studio drops. Meera reminds herself to show her right profile more. She runs a white feather down her cheek, its fronds tickling her. Her au naturel makeup hides the pigmentation on her skin. If only her skin tone were as even as Sakshi Rai’s! Though for that, she’ll have to know the best dermatologists in town and have a bank account to match.

It is the third take of her audition. The casting supervisor is irritated by the disturbances but speaks calmly. “Remember to turn your chin sideways as you say your line. We’ll do another take.”

He leans in further, holding his knees as she runs the feather down her cheek and mouths the tagline: Be who you are! and finishes with an alluring smile. There’s something about Meera’s vulnerability that evokes his compassion. He cannot point out exactly what it is about her, but she glows with a raw appeal rarely seen in newcomers these days. Off camera, she has the awkwardness of a fawn standing up on its trembling legs for the first time; on camera, the resoluteness of a solitary swan coasting on the water.

If only he could tell her not to get her hopes up and that she wouldn’t be the chosen face because the campaign is rigged. The brand has already shortlisted semi-known Instagram influencers for the roles. This audition is a mere formality – a common practice for the industry to show inclusivity. If only he could tell her…but he can’t, because his salary depends on him feigning ignorance. Other than congratulating her on the take and telling her they’ll get back to her soon, he can offer her no reassurance.

Meera walks out, beaming with satisfaction. A good performance always brings the sun out from behind the clouds. She walks past a billboard and imagines her face on it. If that were to happen, it would put to rest all the anxiety she had gone through when handing in her resignation.

Patti had supported her decision even as she narrated a harrowing tale from her younger years – of being propositioned by a magazine photographer when she was in a sari shoot. “He looked at me with such lechery, it made me want to hit him below the belt! Times may have changed, chellam, but not that much. Promise me you’ll watch out for yourself.”

Raghu, as expected, had been displeased with her decision and complained. “But you shot an ad just two months ago. You can’t say your agency isn’t bringing you offers. Plus, you have a steady income from the job here.” When Meera had told him she wanted to explore her prospects in Mumbai, he threw his hands up in the air. “You have all your life to do that. Why now?”

His tantrum had only increased her feelings for him. In fact, she was wildly turned on. No one had ever fought for her time or showered her with as much attention as he had. His passionate longing for her, though laced with possessiveness, was irresistible. This would soon be a memory they would laugh over. It would only be a matter of days before she received an affirmative callback and all would be glorious, just the way she had imagined.

She looks for the numbers on the list of local talent agencies that an acquaintance had given her. Surely, she has nothing to lose by shopping for agencies over the next few days. Hopefully, she will find a contract good enough to terminate the one she has with the Chennai agency. That would put a stop to the free run they’ve been having at her expense, charging a 20 per cent commission on her fee. She’d show them she could do better.

Meera begins contacting the agencies on her checklist, hoping each day would be like today, a silent affirmation of her decision.

“Have you modelled for fashion designers? We only invest our time in campaign shoots. You have the makings of a supermodel, which is why we’re talking now. We are finicky about building our roster. We recently sent our models for the HoneyCave Cosmetics shoot to Dubai. We will charge a 30 per cent commission on all your projects. We are expensive only because we are effective. We will negotiate the right amount for you. Believe me, you will have so much work, you’ll have to decline some of it! Our contracts…”

30 per cent! Did they say 30 per cent commission? The enthusiasm that had fuelled her agency hunt wanes a little. She hadn’t foreseen agencies making lofty pitches with watertight contracts. What else has she overlooked in her decision to move to Mumbai? She must stop overthinking her choices. Tomorrow will be better. Besides, there are plenty of agencies out there. She needs to be patient. It takes time to find a match.

“We have a fabulous track record – 99 per cent success rate. What about the 1 per cent? Sometimes, artists back out themselves, get married, quit working, dishonour the contract, etc.” The agent rattles off the names of famous clients he claims to have represented, but Meera isn’t familiar with any of them.

“I formerly headed the reputed Swan agency. When I left, many of my models followed me here. We have a big shoot coming up in South Africa. They are looking for a face like yours. We don’t chase models or actors. After all, it is our name on the line. I’m sure you want to go to South Africa. Who wouldn’t want to travel internationally?”

Meera manages a polite smile as she grits her teeth at the agent’s hubris.

She looks around the buzzing cafeteria grimly as her coffee cools on the table. It has all been a bit much to digest. Perhaps it’d be best if she held off on signing up with anyone new. At least she has her campaign callback to look forward to. Hopefully, that will come through and then she’ll have the talent agencies eating out of her hands.

Excerpted with permission from Take No. 2020, Puneet Sikka, Penguin India.