Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai, Associate Professor

Office: C643 Wells Hall
Phone: (517) 884-4446
Email: eswaran@msu.edu


Dr. Swarnavel Eswaran is a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, the premier film school in Asia, and the prestigious film studies program at the University of Iowa. He is an accomplished filmmaker and his recent documentaries include Tsunami: Waves from the Deep (2017), Hmong Memories at the Crossroad (2016), Migrations of Islam (2014), and Unfinished Journey: A City in Transition (2012). His films have been screened in major festivals in the USA, UK, Europe, India, Japan, and Africa. He is also a professor of Film Studies and Film Production programs in the English and MI (Media and Information) Departments at Michigan State University. His research focuses on the history, theory, and production of documentaries, and the specificity of Tamil cinema, and its complex relationship with Hollywood as well as popular Hindi films. His recent books are Cinema: Sattagamum Saalaramum (Nizhal, 2013), an anthology of essays on documentaries and experimental films in Tamil, and Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage Publications, 2015).


Nagapattinam: Waves from the Deep
Feature Film, in production, 2016
Director, Producer, Editor

71 min. 20 May 2016. Chicago Tamil Forum. Foster Hall, University of Chicago. My decade long work— documentary on Tsunami relief and rehabilitation (2004-2014) at Nagapattinam, the coastal town in South India.

Hmong Memory at the Crossroad
Co-Director, Associate Producer

97 min.

Selected Awards

  • Winner Best Documentary Film (Feature Category). Universe Multicultural Film Festival, Los Angeles. April 2017.
  • Official Selection. Indie Fest USA (IFF), California. 16 October 2015.
  • Nominated for the Best Documentary Feature. Screening and Round-table Discussion, Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (The Museum of the History of Immigration) at the Palais de la Porte Dorée, Paris, France. 17 March 2016.

Migrations of Islam
Director, Videographer, Editor

56 min.

Selected Awards

  • Official Selection. Ethnogra Film Festival, Paris. 2015.
  • Official Selection. World Documentary Film and Television Conference, Falmouth, UK. 2014.
  • Screened at the SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies) Conference, London. 2014.
  • Official Selection. Queens International Film Festival, New York. 2013.

Book Trailer

5 min. Trailer for Marcia Aldrich’s Award-Winning Novel, Companion to an Untold Story, Univ. of Georgia Press. 2012.

Unfinished Journey: A City in Transition
Co-Director, Co-Producer, Co-Editor

26 min.

Selected Awards

  • Officially Selected by the African World Documentary Film Festival. 2014.
  • Screened at IRepresent International Documentary Film Festival in Lagos, Nigeria.
  • Screened at the Molefi Kete Asante Institute for Afrocentric Studies, Philadelphia.
  • Screened at Missouri History Museum, University of Missouri at St. Louis.
  • Official Selection. St. Augustine Film Festival—a part of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. 2012.
  • Official Selection. San Diego Black Film Festival. 2012.



Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage Publications, January 2015).

Cinema: Sattagamum Saalaramum /Cinema: Frame and a Window. Chennai: Nizhal Pathippagam, Dec. 2012. This book is an anthology of scholarly essays in Tamil on documentaries and experimental films.

Journal Articles

“Periyar as Biopic: Star Persona, Historical Events, and Politics.” Biography (Winter 2017) 40 (1), pp. 93-115.

“Cinematography and the Poetics of 1950s Tamil Cinema: Maruthi Rao and Visual Style.” Screen (2017) 58 (1), pp. 73-81. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/hjx009

“The Legacy: John Grierson, Basil Wright, and the Films Division.” Caesurae: Poetics of Cultural Translation, 2 (1), (ISSN 2454 -9495) Special Issue, Jan. 2017, pp. 61-91.

“Secularism and Its Discontents: Moor’s Last Sigh and Riot.” ART (Analyses, Rereadings and Theories), 4 (1), 2016, pp. 1-15.

Grants and Awards

Tamizh Studio Lifetime Achievement Award (2017) for the contributions to the art of fiction and nonfiction films.

Retrospective of my award-winning documentaries (Periyar Self-Respect Media, Chennai, Dec. 2017).

The Prestigious Teacher-Scholar Award, MSU (2016) for teaching and research.

Tamil Literary Garden Award, Toronto (2015) for the Best Book – Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema.

FeTNA (2014) Federation of the Tamil Sangams/Associations of North America) Distinguished Short Filmmaker Award for contributions to the short form in fiction and nonfiction.


Ph.D. in Film Studies
University of Iowa

D.C. (Diploma in Cinema) Film Direction 
Film and Television Institute of India

Bachelor of Commerce
Bombay University