From Townsend Harris to Bollywood: alumna Ilana Rossein talks about her career as a film producer

HTML tutorial

Ilana Rossein, an alumna who graduated in 2001, has spent her time since graduating making her mark on the film industry. As a producer and the president of a small production company called Curbside Films, she has worked on hit Bollywood films such as English Vinglish and Dhoom 3.

In speaking to The Classic, Ms. Rossein credited a social science research course with sparking an interest in filmmaking. The course, taught by former teacher Jeff Spurgeon, allowed her to explore her passions in social justice, activism and civics, and it was also in this class that Ms. Rossein got her first start in film by making a documentary on the space race. “That was the first time I had learned anything about filmmaking. [The documentary] sort of blended my passions in a sense about American culture: this very political time in American history and this art form of film that I loved,” she said. 

After graduating high school, Ms. Rossein attended Wesleyan University and originally was going to major in political science. After taking a film class during her freshman year, she decided to major in Film Studies instead. “I love that film is a medium that gives you all options,” she said. “You can tell completely made up fantasy stories or shed light on real things happening in the world that are important for people to know about.”

During her time at Wesleyan, Ms. Rossein completed a semester of her studies abroad in India, studying Bollywood films. “I fell in love with the Bollywood industry and the engagement between the society in film India and what a huge part of virtually everybody’s lives were: movies,” Ms. Rossein said. This experience ultimately led Ilana, post-grad, to pursue a job at a Bollywood film production company in New York City, where she worked for a few years, learning the logistics of movie production and gaining first-hand experience on a set.

Ms. Rossein went on to start her own small production company, Curbside Films Inc., and then she began producing feature films and advertisements for an Indian audience. “I do a lot of production for a creative agency that works entirely in the social impact space, so it’s another way to kind of blend this interest in social justice and film,” Ms. Rossein said. 

Among the many films Curbside Inc has produced, one of the most successful movies produced in 2012 was English Vinglish, a film about an Indian woman played by one of the biggest names in Bollywood, Sridevi. In the film, Sridevi’s character decides to take an English course after she finds out she can’t make simple restaurant orders in English. Ms. Rossein served as one of the co-producers on the set of English Vinglish, where she oversaw virtually all aspects of production, and was responsible for making sure production was running smoothly and efficiently, while addressing any potential problems. The movie created a revenue of over 12 million US dollars and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. 

“We screened English Vinglish in a local festival in Massachusetts, having nothing to do with an Indian community, and it was a pretty non-Indian audience,” Ms. Rossein said. “It was so heartwarming to see people relating to it, loving it, and how meaningful it was. It made me really proud to be a part of stories that really connect to people.”

Many Harrisites were pleasantly surprised to learn that an alumna from their own school had played such a pivotal role in producing English Vinglish, a movie many hold close to their hearts. Junior Samia Rimjim felt the movie accurately portrayed the immigrant experience for many South Asian families and how “they struggle with the language barriers when they come to America.” She said, “The overall theme of the movie is also very inspiring as it encourages people to give importance to staying determined and never giving up on themselves.”

Sophomore Shayra Shoshi also said the movie resonated with her own personal experiences as an immigrant. “I was watching it with my mom, an immigrant, who was the youngest and first in her family to immigrate to the United States, so it just made me think about similar things she may have gone through, given the fact that [this film] took place in NYC, making it relatable,” she said.

The next hit Bollywood movie that Ms. Rossein worked on was Dhoom 3 in 2013, where she served as the film’s line producer. The movie stars Katrina Kaif and Aamir Khan, also some of the most renowned actors in India and remains one of the most successful Indian films of all time (when it came out, it was the top grossing movie in India of all time). 

Dhoom 3 was Ilana’s first action film and was a different experience for her. 

“We had a lot of car crashes, people jumping off roofs of buildings and into the Chicago River, and having to work with the National Coast Guard so that we can have six-minute intervals of Aamir Khan jumping into the river. It was very challenging, but it was a wonderful learning experience and a lot of fun,” she said. The film resulted in box office success, producing a revenue of 101 million US dollars worldwide and receiving several accolades, including a filmfare award for best special effects.

Dhoom 3 is also a hit in the homes of many Harrisites. Junior Bakhsish Kaur said it’s her family’s classic pastime movie. She said, “It’s so cool to find out that a Townsend Harris alum worked on the movie. Something I religiously watch with my family couldn’t have been made without someone who went to my school.”

More recently, Ms. Rossein has also worked on several Indian-American Indie projects, one of them being the film I’ll Meet You There, which was a smaller film compared to Curbside’s previous projects. “These films don’t hit the big budgets of the big Indian films but they’re great stories with really talented filmmakers. I love getting to work with different groups of artists,” she said. 

Currently, Ms. Rossein is working on many projects, mostly branding content.

“The most exciting [project] that I’m working on is actually a feature film that I’m producing that we wrote with a friend of mine in India. My wife, who is a director, is planning to direct. She is also collaborating on a new project with American-indie film director, Francesca Mirabella,” she said. 

Looking towards the future, Ms. Rossein said that her goal is to create more content internally with Curbside Films.  

Given the various experiences Ms. Rossein went through, she has this advice for future and current Harrisites: “Be transparent to exploring what you’re interested in, and give a chance to learn. Just be open to traversing through your choices, giving an opportunity to search for it, and the many different directions you might go in.”