How I got my Mandela movie made

By Farida Master

South African film producer Anant and wife Vanashree Singh at the Johannesburg premiere of Mandela Long Walk to Freedom.
South African film producer Anant and wife Vanashree Singh at the Johannesburg premiere of Mandela Long Walk to Freedom.

It might be the film about the life of Nelson Mandela which famously had its Royal premiere in London on the day he died.

But if Long Walk to Freedom has become a cinematic eulogy, the project started while its leading man was still prisoner 4664.

Producer Anant Singh, a third generation South African Indian and a prominent film-maker in his homeland since the mid 1980s, first wrote to Mandela while he was incarcerated, asking him what he thought about a film about his life.

It took decades, 30 or more script drafts as well as multiple changes in potential director and cast for Singh to film the definitive biopic he wanted.

But realising that dream that came with sadness. It was Singh, who, at the film's London premiere, announced to the gathered VIP guests that Mandela had just passed away.

Here's Singh discussing his own long walk to get the film made ...

Considering there were plenty of contenders who wanted to make the biopic on Nelson Mandela's life, how did you bag the rights of his biography?

I had written to Nelson Mandela when he was in prison asking him if I could make a film on his life. I was making films on apartheid and even at that stage I believed that he had led a very impressive life. He very modestly replied to my letter saying, 'who would really be interested in knowing about my life?' I met him a few weeks after he was out of prison. It was at that time that he told me he had written his own autobiography and was going to publish it himself. I kept in touch with him and followed it up over the years. He was generous enough to sell the rights of the book Long Walk to Freedom to me. Though there were Hollywood studios pursuing him, he felt it should be a South African who should tell the story. I was truly honoured that he trusted me enough. It was a huge responsibility to tell his incredible life story in just two and a half hours. It was really daunting, a huge challenge.

How did the idea of making a biopic on Nelson Mandela's life come about?

It was a story I was always aware of. I was making other anti-apartheid films and this was the quintessential South African story. When I started making movies I believed that the story of liberation was so profound, it had to be told. I naturally gravitated towards it.

Is it true that the script for Long Walk to Freedom was re-written 30 times?

It was rescripted at least that number of times. It could be more. It was a very long journey. There was a change of directors, actors, cast and a lot of research that went into it. The film starts when he was eight and ends when he became President in 1994.

Weren't you tempted to give up making the film at any point of time? Weren't you frustrated by the long delay?

Much as there are ups and downs, if you believe in something you should follow it. Given the patience Nelson Mandela had when he was in prison and the way he continued his epic ordeal against apartheid, I could do it as well. In Mandela's own words, "it always seems impossible till it is done." I wouldn't have given up even in a million years. I felt very passionate about it. His life needed to be celebrated. He was a source of inspiration not only to South Africans but to the entire world.

What was your relationship with him?

We were very close friends. He attended our wedding and has been to our home a couple of times. Most of all, he trusted me enough to say "go make the film but don't bother me. I trust that whatever you make will be good." Not once did he ask me when the film will be completed. There was no deadline or pressure from him. He wanted me to depict him the way he was, with imperfections and all.

What did you admire most about him?

It was his humility and unique sense of humour. He had a very dry sense of humour, it was quite remarkable. With a person of his stature you wouldn't expect that. He had an amazing ability to make everyone from a bell boy to royalty and ordinary people feel very special and respected.

What made you buy all of Nelson Mandela's memorabilia?

During the last sixteen to eighteen years I had already accumulated a lot of material on Nelson Mandela whilst doing research for the film. Then in November they had a rare auction of his memorabilia and the sale came up. It included his victory speech, photographs and signed mementos. I bought it because I felt it is important keep it all together and then put it as a public exhibit. It would be a fitting tribute to Madiba.

Do you think the timing of his death coinciding with the premiere of the film is poignant?

It was very surreal. Because there was so much of fanfare for the film and then to hear that he had passed away. Everyone was very emotional when we announced it. Though we had expected it, it was very sad that we had lost our hero. Destiny of life and death is strange sometimes and it's not for me to say whether it was poignant, but his life has been really remarkable in so many ways. There has never been anyone quite like him and there will never be. All I can say is that the film is a great team effort and everyone gave it their best. Hundreds of thousands of South Africans came together for it. It is a film I am very proud of.

- NZ Herald

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