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Actress battles boxed-in roles for all Indians

Shabana azmi, a member of India's Parliament, greets her visitors wearing a teeka on her forehead - the traditional red dot often worn by married Hindu women. Except she is not Hindu and, as a noted actress, is hardly traditional. She is a Muslim who has become a leading voice against the rise of extreme ethnic and nationalist feelings in India.

In the past year, India's billion-faced profile in the international arena has changed. A culture war over India's identity has come more into the open. Extremist squads have targeted Christians, Muslims, and low-caste Hindus. A Hindu nationalist government tested nuclear weapons.

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An atypical politician, Ms. Azmi is also a movie star who eschews the celebrity system of Bollywood, as Bombay's film industry is known. Instead, she takes roles that challenge "attempts to force our identity as Indians into a fixed system of religion or tradition," as she puts it.

For Azmi, the watershed in her own political identity came in 1992 when Hindu nationalists destroyed a mosque in Ayodhya, setting off riots around the country. "It was shocking. For me, identity was always fluid. I was a woman, an Indian, an actress, a Muslim, a daughter, a wife, an activist. But in the new approach I was forced to be a Muslim. That is not the truth of India. We have a composite culture."

Azmi, a kind of Meryl Streep of South Asia and a popular icon here, says such trends are a departure from the India she envisioned as a member of the nation-building generation of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. For that generation India was to be a modern state, where identity transcends race, religion, and ethnic background.

"In what seems like a fast-growing intolerant world order, the only answer is pluralism," Azmi says in an interview. "Say what you want. But thou shalt not kill, and thou shalt not destroy property. Any civilized society must live by universal rules."

In the same way that Mohandas Gandhi used enlightenment ideals forged in the West to make his point to British colonizers that they ought to leave, so too, Azmi's tradition could be described as a mixture of Western and Indian idealism - played out in a very Indian way.

AS a politician, Azmi reflects a broad, educated middle-class Indian view that has remained largely silent during the past year. (She is one of the members of Parliament's upper house nominated by the president, and she is not a member of a political party.) In recent weeks the government led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has itself taken on a more moderate tone. The prime minister's statesman-like visit to Pakistan, long a nemesis, is an appeal to a centrist constituency that wants peace.

As an artist, however, Azmi has just emerged from the middle of India's hottest culture war - for her starring role in "Fire," a film by noted director Deepa Mehta that has been released internationally. The picture, which provoked rock-throwing gangs and front-page headlines in December, goes far past artistic statements and into one of the most sensitive areas of Indian life: relations between the sexes.

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In "Fire," Azmi plays a dutiful wife who falls in love with the ignored wife of her husband's brother. As Azmi and others point out, the film is not about lesbianism per se; indeed it does not contain risqu visuals. It mainly deals with conditions between the sexes in India that can lead to a lack of intimacy between men and women, and between husbands and wives in a still very strong system of arranged marriages.

When "Fire" was released this fall, gangs from a quasi-fascist Hindu party, Shiv Sena, stormed theaters across the country and harassed moviegoers - forcing the federal government to temporarily close the film. It opened again last month.

This month, Azmi is making headlines over a new Hindi film, "The Godmother." Azmi plays a woman from a rural village whose husband is killed by the local mafia - and in retaliation she becomes the local don. A love story leitmotif has the godmother's Hindu son trying to marry a Muslim girl. Everyone is against the marriage, including the godmother. But at film's end the godmother backs her son's choice, and the two families come together - a social message many Indians are not ready to accept.

Azmi's roles have always questioned the conventional. In 1974, "The Seedling" dealt with a young Indian woman's journey from the village to the modern city. But Azmi's character did not simply adopt the values of the pop-culture wave sweeping Indian urban youth at the time.

"Shabana had a modern sentiment that was also Indian, and that opened up space for us," says longtime friend Tani Bhargava. "At the time when the '60s generation was falling for the West hook, line, and sinker - with the promiscuity, hippies - Shabana rejected that mindless modernism. Instead she put the sari on center stage, showing us that being Indian didn't mean we had to be backward."

Film critic Shubra Gupta of the Indian Express says Azmi's studied approach to acting gives her leverage no other female can match. "She is one of the most thinking actresses in Indian film today.... It is one reason why she can demand that not all important roles go to men," Ms. Gupta says.

The daughter of one of India's foremost poets, Azmi comes out of a privileged Bombay background. Her parents chose not to leave India for Muslim Pakistan during partition in 1947; they considered India home. Azmi had a long relationship with director Shehkar Kapur, whose film "Elizabeth" is nominated for several Oscars this year - before marrying her current husband, a poet and former scriptwriter. Azmi is also one of a new breed of South Asian jet-setters who is as at home in London as Delhi; she speaks regularly at places like Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Even Azmi critics admit that she devotes as much if not more time to social causes in Parliament as to her art. She typically works 12-hour days in a bungalow next to her home, around the corner from Sonia Gandhi's residence in Delhi's fashionable inner circle. In the 1980s, in something called "Operation Evacuation," Bombay started to round up thousands of street dwellers and encamp them outside town. Azmi and others formed a group to allow them to stay in the city and work - an urban housing group Azmi still heads.

"A test for any society, any democracy, is the question of how it treats its minorities," she says. "We have to show in a new way that we can pass the test."

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