Michigan State University

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai

man with striped shirt, green sweater, grey suit, glasses, goatee and brown hair

Contact Information

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


Dr. Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai is an Associate Professor in the Departments of English, and Media and Information at Michigan State University. He graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), a premier film school in Asia, and the prestigious University of Iowa, where he received his doctoral degree in Film Studies. His research areas include the history, theory, and production of documentaries and short films, and the specificity of Tamil cinema and its complex relationship with Hollywood as well as popular Hindi films. His recent publications include Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage Publications, 2015) and Cinema: Sattagamum Saalaramum/Cinema: Frame and a Window (Nizhal Publications, 2012). This latter book is an anthology of scholarly essays in Tamil on documentaries and experimental films. He is an accomplished documentary filmmaker, and his recent films include Unfinished Journey: A City in Transition (2012), Migrations of Islam (2014), and Hmong Memory at the Crossroads (2016).

Selected Publications

Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage   Publications, January 2015
Cinema: Sattagamum Saalaramum /Cinema: Frame and Window. Chennai: Nizhal Pathippagam, Dec. 2012. This book is an anthology of scholarly essays in Tamil on documentaries and experimental films.
“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
“Secularism and Its Discontents: Moor’s Last Sigh and Riot.” ART (Analyses, Rereadings and Theories), 4 (1), 2016, pp. 1-15.
“Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History.” TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies, 1 (1) , 2016, pp. 5-20.
“Mysskin’s Pisaasu (2014): Ghost as the goddess.” Studies in South Asian Film & Media, 7  (1+2), 2016, pp. 89–101.
“The Texture of Interiority: Voiceover and Visuals,” Studies in Visual Arts and Communication, 2 (1), (2015), <http://journalonarts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/SVACij-Vol2_No1_2015-Pillai-Texture-Voiceover-and-Visuals.pdf>
Mirugavidusagam: Theater of the Body, Ritual and Land,” Studies in South Asian Film and Media (Intellect), 5 (1), Spring (April) 2013 (The Body: Indian theatre Special Issue), pp. 37-46.
“1970s Tamil Cinema and the Post-Classical Turn,” South Asian Popular Culture (Routledge), 10 (1), April 2012, pp. 77-89. Reprinted asThe 1970s Tamil Cinema and the Post-Classical Turn,” In Priya Joshi and Rajinder Dudrah eds. The 1970s and its Legacies in India’s Cinemas. Eds. England, UK: Routledge 2014, pp. 76-88.

Documentaries and Short Films

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

Hmong Memory at the Crossroads, 2015, (Co-director with Safoi Babana-Hampton and Cyril Payen, and Associate Producer), 97 min.
Winner Best Documentary Film (Feature Category). Universe Multicultural Film Festival. Los Angeles. April 2017.
Official Selection. Indie Fest USA (IFF), California, 16 Oct. 2015. Nominated for the Best Documentary Feature
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, Screening and Round-table discussion

Migrations of Islam, 2013, (Director, Videographer, and Editor), 56 min.
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, 2012,(Director, Trailer for Marcia Aldrich’s Award-Winning Novel, Companion to an Untold Story, Univ. of Georgia Press, 2012),  5 min.

Unfinished Journey: A City in Transition, 2011, (Co-director, Co-producer, and Co-Editor with Mark Huelsbeck), 26 min.
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).

Courses Taught

  • MI311 – Intro to Documentary Production
  • MI491 – Short Film: Writing and Directing
  • FLM451/ENG818 – Postcolonial Cinemas: Indian Cinema
  • FLM260 – Intro Digital Cinema and Media
  • FLM334 – Screenwriting
  • FLM336 – Aesthetics of Editing


  • Teacher-Scholar Award (2016)
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