In 1982, Nelson Mandela was shifted from Robben Island prison to the one in Pollsmoor by the then South African government to weaken his influence over young anti-apartheid activists. A college-going Anant Singh was one such activist. Singh used to regularly write to Mandela when the latter was in prison. Once, when he wrote to him seeking his permission to make a film on him, Mandela’s reply was, “Who would want to watch a film about me?”
Nearly three decades later, undeterred by Mandela’s scepticism, Singh has gone on to produce Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “The impact he had on us at that time, to speak out against apartheid, was profound. I wanted to make a film on him ever since,” says Singh. The film will release in India on January 24.
Singh was introduced to Mandela and the movement by his friend, the late Fatima Meer — a sociologist and human rights activist of Indian origin who wrote Mandela’s first authorised biography, which the film is based on. Soon after Mandela got out of jail, Singh secured rights to the his autobiography in the late ’90s. Singh, who by then had become one of South Africa’s pre-eminent producers, took up the project excitedly and started working on his life-long dream. The film that earned three Golden Globe nominations this year is also nominated for the Best Original Song at the Oscars.
Singh’s Mandela-story had a strange closure on December 5 during the film’s screening at Royal Film Performance, which hosts grand premieres attended by members of the British Royal Family. As Mandela’s life unfolded on screen, Singh received a text from Mandela’s daughters Zenani and Zindzi about their father passing away. With 20 minutes of the movie left, the sisters insisted that the screening should not be stopped. After it ended, Singh stepped on to the stage and announced the news of Mandela’s death to the 1,400-strong audience, including Prince Williams and his wife Kate Middleton.
The Justin Chadwik-directed film is produced by Singh’s Videovision Entertainment, a Durban-based distribution and production company that has produced over 80 films. The company has been involved in some of the more socially-relevant films of South Africa, including the Oscar-nominated Yesterday, a Zulu film that talks about AIDS. The film bagged South Africa its first Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Language Picture category in 2005. “South Africa has amazing stories that are quite cinematic. I believe it is important to tell these stories that the world doesn’t have a clue about,” says Singh. Prominent among his political movies are A Place for Weeping (1986), regarded as the country’s first anti-apartheid drama, and Sarafina! (1992), a musical depicting a student uprising.
From a politically aware student activist, Singh made a transition to films when he dropped out of his engineering college and opened a video rental store. His family, which originally hails from Punjab, is settled in Durban for three generations.
Singh’s last meeting with Mandela was in 2013 in the leader’s home village Qunu — where Mandela was later buried — and Singh showed him parts of the film. “Seeing Idris Elba (the actor who plays Mandela and a Golden Globe nominee for Best Actor) display his trademark wry sense of humour, Madiba smiled and said, ‘Is that me?’,” recollects the 57-year-old producer.