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Brief encounter with Robert De Niro

Hollywood actor Robert De Niro, known as the big daddy of movie acting, answers a couple of questions asked by Khalid Mohamed.

india Updated: Dec 27, 2007 11:48 IST
Khalid Mohamed

Today Hollywood personalities are driven by the PR-machinery for quickie chats and one-on-ones with journos from India. But some stars have remained elusive. Robert De Niro, acknowledged as the big daddy of movie acting, was nailed.. a couple of times actually in Moscow and New York, for a couple of questions by Khalid Mohamed

Note equipment. Dimples you can roll marbles in, an inch or two taller than the stocky figure that stalks the movies, eyes which narrow till the irises disappear a companionable New York laughter. It's all there in Robert De Niro, god of acting.

To flaunt the brag quotient right away I have met, yeah met De Niro, on two occasions. Neither of the meetings lasted more than five minutes. How the wristwatch ticked. So if I'm recalling the snatched total sum of 10 minutes with RDN, it's to hawk my brief encounters with the actor. He had coursed in the world's youth bloodstream during the 1970-'80s. Those were the days, my chums.

Now whom do we have who can measure up? Leonardo DiCaprio? Matt Damon? George Clooney? Jamie Foxx?
Harvey Keitel, if you know him. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton and Vigo Morgensten are acquired tastes.
Heart bracingly, most global actors now make it a point to be conversational and answerable to the media - whether you're from Haryana or Hong Kong.

The Japanese still have an edge though since Tokyo is the largest Asian market for American cinema. Our Mumbai bazaar is not even a grain of sand in a desert.

Small world
The market is growing though. Today, Indian journos are invited for trans-Atlantic phoners with Catherina Zeta-Jones, Mike Douglas, Reese Witherspoon, you name it, you quote it. Overseas ‘junkets' to the US and the UK are not uncommon. Cool. But of course, if you're a Bombay-type they'll transport you cattle class. The more important the city in terms of Hollywood releases, the cushier the treatment.

Be that as it may, so far, the contact with the Indian media has been avoided, surely inadvertently by Julia Roberts. Surprisingly , too, by Angelina Jolie.

Even a smidgen of India-tolerance would have certainly given The Mighty Heart a stronger fillip at our INOXes, PVRs and Cinemaxes. Its commercial performance suffered from, to put it very obviously, cardiac arrest.

Top of the list
Oh well.. and does my No 1 actor even know about his subaltern fandom in India? Probably not. Since August last, Robert Mario De Niro has been 64. He's not on any Hollywood power-list (Will Smith leads).

De Niro's second film as a director, The Good Shepherd, didn't set off any buzz in India. And his first pitch at direction, A Bronx Tale, has been viewed essentially on the video circuit. The Shepherd movie was a bit of a plod, a nobly-intentioned one albeit since it exposed the ground rules of the CIA.

Flashback
But there's always an inner thrill.Whatever De Niro does sparks insta-visual and sound flashbacks. So, there was that time when I could have killed to ask him some questions at the Moscow Film Festival.

I'd landed there with a gang of parallel filmwalas, ranging from Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah to Deepti Naval, Ketan Mehta and Suresh Oberoi.

The movie worthies couldn't gain entry into the press conference with De Niro - he was there because everyone wanted to be there during the Gorbachev glasnost euphoria.

I sailed into the press conference and waited. Swallowing my shyness, I couldn't believe myself, asking, "Mr De Niro, haven't far too many of your movies glorifed violence?"

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Was I a nerd or what? I was. De Niro's irises opened like a camera shutter, he smiled pleasantly at me, the goblin, and uttered, "You have a point there. Yes, there has been violence in my films. Critics have criticised me. I won't say that I was just doing what the director instructed me to. I have been guilty by association in that… (violence).. but somewhere I hope that the films have also said that violence is useless..self-defeating."

Point made. I jotted a mental note, must tell this to the responsibility-shirking Amitabh Bachchan when I got home. Never did. As for De Niro, right then he looked at the next question-person. I quacked, "Thank you," like Donald Duck would, face red as the beetroot borscht served at the Moscow Hotel.

Honour, honour
A couple of hours later, Azmi who had returned from a sightseeingtrip, said enviously, "I hear you actually asked De Niro a question." Shah, Naseeruddin that is, hissed as he always does.

Naval and Oberoi were ready to garland me with roses. I slept with a huge smiley on my face that night under a blood-red nightlamp which couldn't be switched off. Rumour was that it was a watchful device.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't," a concerned Naval had advised, "in your room." I left Moscow, saintly, but not sure if De Niro's answer could be bunged into an interview. Mission scoop, unfulfilled.

In high company
The next De Niro quickie was in New York where he has invested in property assets, besides setting up TriBeCa Productions and an annual film festival. You can get into that festical only if you're born with a celluloid spoon in your mouth. Never made it to the festival but did to a party over looking a sleepy water bay. The crowd crush was monumental. Latter-day Warholesque freakies were there, and me in a Nehru jacket to announce I'm-an-Asian identity .

I'm introduced to RDN. I shake hands with the man. And before he's whisked away by the flunkies and freakies, ask him, "Would you agree that your Taxi Driver performance..aaah..rewrote the rules of acting?" In response, I get a what's-he-talking-about? smile, and a counter-question, "Are you enjoying yourself ?"

"Yes, yes," and then adopting the standard rule of journalism, I wonder, "Would you rate it as your most accomplished performance ever.."

A nod to say yes, and then casually, "Raging Bull.. umm..Cape Fear..Godfather (II), Raging Bull for sure..and (laughs) Awakenings too..no one brings that up..and there's always the next movie."

High hopes
Then RDN moves like a car through traffic, rushing into a fast lane. I wanted to know about method acting. He learnt to play the saxophone for New York New York, added on kilos whenever he had to play super fat, ground his teeth if he had to play a menacing stalker. You know what I mean.

He had made contact with the audience 30 years ago, as a sociopath Taxi Driver, by just glaring at the mirror and asking, "You talking to me?" That remains the big defining movie moment for me.

De Niro is believed to have improvised the line. That's cinema, that's acting. And that four-word sentence keeps me going. Who knows? Maybe there'll be another snatched q and a with him yet. He talking to me?