Everybody loves a good origin story. From Vito Corleone to Wolverine and Saul Goodman to Joker — several of our favourite pop-culture characters have drawn curious inquiries into their past. The art of the prequel, however, has largely eluded Hindi cinema. With the exception of Naam Shabana, a prequel to Baby, our franchises have strictly flown in one direction. Over each instalment, our heroes have grown bigger and bulkier, with rarely an impulse to look back.
That changes somewhat with Dabangg 3, a hybrid entry that sheds partial light on the early years of Chulbul Pandey. How did the resentful stepson of a UP landlord turn into an endearing corrupt cop played by Salman Khan? What spun his anger, his goof, and his wicked humour? The mysteries around Laalgunj’s Robinhood Pandey are rife, and they all lead back to a girl.
Saiee Manjrekar, daughter of actor-director Mahesh Manjrekar, makes her screen debut in Dabangg 3. She plays Khushi, an old flame of Chulbul. The promos show a younger-looking Salman romancing a 21-year-old village belle. What also ties them together is the presence of Balli, the ominous new villain played by Kichha Sudeep. Balli appears to have his designs on Khushi, suggesting an ancient feud with Chulbul. “Koi Dabangg paida nahi hota…,” Salman says in the trailer, “Dabanggs aren’t born… there’s always a story behind it.”
Speaking to Cinema Express about her character and how she fits into the franchise’s lore, Saiee says, “Khushi is a sweet, innocent character who is Chulbul Pandey’s first love. She’s had a small hand in shaping his being — all the mannerisms and nuances that you saw in the first two parts.” Being a city girl herself — she was born and raised in Mumbai — Saiee referenced old films like Nadiya Ke Paar (1992) to prepare for the part. “The scenes with Sadhana Singh and Sachin Pilgaonkar helped me crack the lingo. Growing up, I would accompany my dad to faraway villages for shoots. I also drew references from there.”
Saiee first interacted with Salman on a flight to Punjab. They were headed for the shoot of Wanted, which also starred her father. This was around 2009 and she was in school. “I was a huge fan of him and really nervous. I remember I was feeling hungry and Salman offered me Tiramisu.” She lists Andaz Apna Apna and Hum Aapke Hain Koun! as her favourite films of the actor.
The newcomer doesn’t mind the age disparity between her and her co-star. “I thought I’d get intimidated because I respect Salman sir a lot. But he made it a point to make me really comfortable. I was able to completely be myself with him, which is why I was so much at ease while performing.”
Dabangg 3 was shot in Madhya Pradesh. Locations included the temple town of Maheshwar and parts of Wai. Saiee and Salman have two song sequences in the film — Naina Lade and Awara. Saiee, who has trained in dancing from an early age, praises the film’s lavish choreography. “The whole marketplace situation in Naina Lade was well thought of. It was a collaborative effort between Prabhu (Deva) sir and the dance directors. They wanted me to be natural with my expressions. I’m a shy person who likes to go on set prepared, so it was a challenge to be spontaneous.”
Saiee also enjoyed working with Sonakshi Sinha, who reprises the role of Rajjo. Like the former, Sonakshi too made her Bollywood debut in Dabangg (2010), and is now returning to the franchise for the third time. “Sonakshi is a gem of a person,” Saiee says, “I remember going to the trailer launch with her. There was a room full of people and I was feeling scared. Sonakshi held my hand and made me feel strong. That was really sweet of her.”