He attributes his lifelong affiliation with the world of the moving images to one Disney film — Bambi (1942). Robin Baker, head curator at the British Film Institute (BFI), distinctly recalls how at the age of four he first saw the film. “I was traumatised when I saw Bambi’s mother being killed in the film. From that moment onwards, I knew I loved films,” said Baker, when we met him at the British Council in Delhi, where he was promoting Shiraz, a 1928 film restored by the BFI. The silent film set in the Mughal period shares how a simple girl, Selima, became Mumtaz Mahal. It has been remastered, and given a new musical score by Anoushka Shankar.
Born in a small village near Chester in North West England, films were a calling that Baker couldn’t resist. “I would occasionally sneak out of school and go to the movies; that indicates how much cinema meant to me. In those times, living in a small village you relied a lot on television. Of course, there were a lot of older classics on TV than what we get now,” adds Baker.
One would presume, that for the head curator at BFI — a British charitable institute dedicated to film archiving and preservation — the job would entail watching a lot of films. Baker laughs. “Not as much as I would like. We, essentially, are collecting films for the future; the best of contemporary British cinema and television. It’s difficult to collect them now, it will be even more difficult in the coming years. We want to tell stories about cinema,” says Baker.
An archaeologist by training, Baker studied at the University of Southampton, UK, and spent quiet some time assisting excavations pertaining to the early Bronze age. “I spent lots of years digging up sites in central Austria, looking for objects that are about 4,500 years old,” he says. The thrill of discovering an unseen film from the cans, he says, is no different than digging up ancient artefacts. “As a film curator I am looking at the recent past and we are learning from the histories about and around them. This is what I love most about my job, uncovering a hidden gem, which no one has seen, and then restoring it and bringing it out to the world,” says Baker, adding, “I had never considered that being a film programmer or curator was a job that people might get paid to do. When I was working as an archaeologist, I was also volunteering at a local arts centre in Southampton. I was part of a group that developed an independent film programme of shorts and features. As a result of that — and other event management experience — I managed to get a job with a local film festival. I ended up as the programmer of the festival and that was my stepping stone to the BFI,” says Baker.
When Baker first joined BFI, in 2005, he was entrusted to collect and archive films from India. “We are lucky to have the world’s largest collection. We have about 500 non-fiction films, all shot before Partition. Most of them are made by British filmmakers and soldiers. There are some by Indians — one is by the Maharaja of Jodhpur, from the 1920s. You will be surprised, many of those films are in colour, you get to see India in colour in the 1930s and ’40s. There is one in 1909, that stands out for me particularly. It’s about Delhi, and it was not shot on colour film stock — they hand-tinted each frame of the film with a stencil. It’s so beautiful, and talks about colonialism,” adds Baker.
Continuing in the same vein of discovering lost stories, BFI has launched a new project in partnership with the British Council, under which many such films have been restored and put on YouTube. “We have put up about a 100 films on our YouTube channel, majority of them have not been seen for about 80 to 100 years. To see films from that period — 1890s to 1940s — is so rare. In Britain, about 30 per cent of films from that period have survived, from India they are about one per cent,” says Baker. Several of these also come from Dehradun, where Baker spent time in the late ’90s, working with a charitable organisation. “When I joined BFI, I was intrigued to find several films from Dehradun, made by Dr Gorrie. He used to work at the Forest Research Institute. A particular sequence of the Paltan Bazaar, the main market of Dehradun, from a 1931 film stands out for me. These films talk of people and places when there were no other visual records of the same,” says Baker.
The curator feels films are an indispensable tool for us to record and research history. “It’s all part of our collective memory, whether they tell us the stories we want to hear or not. It shouldn’t matter, they are all important records. Cinema is the greatest and most popular art form in current times. It affects lives, it can change how people think and helps them to see the world differently. We need to consciously archive and preserve cinema,” he says.