Empathy Lessons From Mai

Despite being driven by dark rage, the series teaches us a thing or two about empathy
Sakshi Tanwar in a still from Mai
Sakshi Tanwar in a still from Mai

Mai is a revenge drama thriller where a determined mother takes on dangerous and powerful forces in order to avenge her daughter's death. Though this is a familiar trope — Ma becomes Durga Ma overnight — Mai still holds your attention by the collar. The primary reason? The brilliant Sakshi Tanwar, who plays the titular character. Her character's name is 'Sheel', which means modesty in Hindi, but we meet her at a point in her life where she is breaking away from this stereotypical identity. Even then, her core self — an incredibly empathetic soul — emerges brilliantly, even in her gangster-mom avatar. In spite of being a story driven by the dark emotion of rage, Mai's journey does teach us a thing or two about empathy.

Sheel's family dynamics show us how one's empathy can be taken advantage of by loved ones, especially when one deems their own needs secondary. Sheel's younger child was given away to a childless couple in the immediate family and Sheel was emotionally manipulated into consenting to this arrangement. The messiness with which relative adoptions are handled by Indian families is portrayed realistically in the series. At a crucial point when she finally puts her foot down, she ends up shocking the child with sheer insensitivity. She had waited too long, until her cup had completely dried up, to stand up for herself.

In a scene that is difficult to watch, we see one of her fellow conspirators molesting and humiliating Sheel to "warn" her. However, we still see her empathizing with him at a later point, resonating with the lengths one can go to, for the sake of loved ones. She understands because just like him, she too has drifted away from her values to do right by someone she loved unconditionally. Sheel's character reminds us that lived experiences propel us towards a lasting empathy, enabling us to look at life's greys through a non-judgemental lens.

Similarly, when she finds out about the past trauma of a young boy who got dragged into filth at a tender age, she wants him to have a second chance at life. Even when she is consumed by her own hateful fire, she finds the energy to try her best to give him that chance. Empathy is often seen as a weakness and here, Mai shows us its powerful potential. Sheel has gained a better grip over her sensitivity and does not let it override her own interests. She feeds the boy and nurses his wounds, but she also subjects him to ruthless punishments when he crosses a limit. She clearly establishes that her compassion cannot be taken for granted anymore.

Empathy is probably the last thing we can expect in a character who has set out on a quest for revenge. What makes Sheel unique is that she is willing to give the other person the benefit of doubt and see if there is a genuineness in where they are coming from. Empathy is most often described as one's ability to be in someone else's shoes. It is interesting how it is indeed Sheel's shoes that finally get her secret caught!

We will have to wait for the next season to find out where this crazy journey, powered by vengeance, takes its empathetic lead.

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