The story behind Long Walk To Freedom

Though there were Hollywood studios pursuing him for the film rights, it was to Anant Singh that Nelson Mandela turned to.
Why did Madiba trust Anant Singh with his life?

By Farida Master

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Published: Sat 18 Jan 2014, 8:52 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 10:18 PM

It was in the last half an hour of the premier of Long Walk To Freedom that Anant’s Singh’s cell rang at the Odean Cinema in Leicester Square, London. He was speechless when he heard the news. He couldn’t believe that it was at the UK premiere, held with great fanfare with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in attendance, that his muse and inspiration, Nelson Mandela had passed away.

South African producer Anant Singh had devoted more than 20 years of his life, trying to do justice, capturing the life of prisoner No 4664 who became the first black president of South Africa.

The timing was surreal. Should he break the news of the iconic leaders death to the audience or should he wait till the last reel of the film unspooled? He immediately informed Mandela’s daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, who were present at the grand showing. They asked him to let the show go on, exactly like their father would have wanted.

Anant held his breath till the captivated audience watched the biopic, his labour of love to the very end. Then he went up on stage and made the announcement that the 95-year-old Madiba as he was fondly known had breathed his last. They observed a minute of silence.

Anant Singh, Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada and (right) at the London premier with Mandela’s daughters. - Photo by Dana Gluckstein

The timing could not have been more poignant. On one hand the change of scripts, directors, cast and storylines had caused unprecedented delays to the making of the film. Yet it was as if once the story of the revolutionary anti-apartheid leader’s life had been captured on celluloid for eternity, the gentle giant who conducted himself with extraordinary humility had make his final bow.

Prince William and Kate were equally shocked and short of words when confronted with the sad news.

In a telephonic interview from South Africa, the globe-trotting producer who has made more than 80 films talked about the long journey involved in making the biggest South African film to-date. He shared notes on his real and reel life hero whose life showcased forgiveness and a vision to build a republic out of a racially divided nation. Excerpts from the interview.

Considering there were plenty of contenders who wanted to make the biopic on Nelson Mandela’s life, how come were you singled out for it?

ANANT SINGH: 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 he had led a very impressive life. He was very modest in saying ‘who would really be interested in knowing about my life?’

I met him a few weeks after he was out of prison. He told me that he had written his own autobiography and was going to publish it himself. I kept in touch and followed it up with him over the years. He was generous enough to sell the rights of the book Long Walk of Freedom to me. Though there were Hollywood studios that were pursuing him, he felt it should be a South African who should tell the story. I was really honoured. 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?

Yes, it is true it was rescripted at least that number of times. It could be more. It was a 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.

Did you want to give up making the film at any point of time?

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. As Nelson Mandela said, “it always seems impossible till it is done.” I wouldn’t have given up even in a million years. 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.

What did you admire most about him?

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

Did you buy all of Nelson Mandela’s memorabilia including his victory speech, photographs and signed mementos at a rare auction?

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. I bought it because I thought it is important keep it all together and then put it up later as a public exhibit. It would be a fitting tribute to Madiba.

Do you think the timing of his death coinciding with the premier 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.

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