Ashima Chhibber couldn’t contain her laughter while reading the script but seriously hopes she won’t be the only one laughing while watching ‘Mere Dad ki Maruti’

Ashima Chhibber spreads cheer when she talks. She punctuates her sentences with her heartfelt laughter. It sounds believable when she says she always wanted to direct a comedy. Hyderabad-bred Ashima will make her directorial debut with Mere Dad Ki Maruti, releasing March 15. It was a happy co-incidence that Yash Raj Films offered her the chance to direct a comedy for its subsidiary, Y Films. “I read the script, laughed and laughed all night. I read it again in the morning to see if it still sounds funny. It did. And I said I’d do it,” says Ashima and adds cheekily, “The film has turned out as I wanted it to. I hope people enjoy it. I don’t want to be the only one laughing.”

Mere Dad Ki Maruti is a comedy set in Chandigarh mirroring the life of a middle-class Punjabi family. “It’s not a Do Dooni Chaar kind of a film,” she says, though the car is a point of tug of war. A boy (Saqib Saleem) sneaks out his dad’s (Ram Kapoor) brand new Maruti to take the college sweetheart (Rhea Chakraborty) on a spin and ends up losing the car.

Maruti, here, becomes a symbol of Indian society, says Ashima. “In the 80s, everyone wanted to own a Maruti, irrespective of whether you were middle class or affluent. In this film, Maruti plays an important part of Ram Kapoor’s life. He is a miser but is proud that he first bought a Maruti 800, then a bigger Maruti product when he got married and now plans to gift his daughter with the same brand of car for her wedding. For him gifting a Maruti is like passing on an heirloom,” says Ashima.

Ram Kapoor, who has pretty much played the patriarch earlier, plays a temperamental father who is a nightmare to his teenaged son. This character necessitated someone seriously funny. “Your actors are what a film is. I was particular on getting the right actors,” says Ashima. At first, she was reluctant to cast Ram Kapoor: “I thought he’d be too young to play dad for a teenager.” But when she met him, Ashima was convinced this is the ‘dad’ she was looking for. “Ram Kapoor’s body language is funny and I realised no one has exploited that,” she says. In Ram Kapoor, Ashima had found an actor who could play a father like Anupam Kher in Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin.

The father casting done with, Ashima was at a loss before she finalised Saqib Saleem for the son’s part. “He had just debuted in Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge and I didn’t want him to do another teenager act. I wanted a cute, young guy with bang-on comic timing. I auditioned a number of actors, came back to Saqib and was thoroughly impressed with his audition,” she says.

So she had two opposites juxtaposed as son and father: “A ‘healthy’ father and a skinny son, both who’ve never stepped into a gym.” For this role, she barred Saqib from working out so that he’d shed his muscles and be his skinny self.

Casting Rhea Chakraborty was easier: “Think of a Punjabi heroine and someone like Kareena or Alia would come to mind. Though Rhea looks Bengali, she was excellent with her dead pan expressions in comic sequences. We wanted someone who would look cool but still have a child-like quality to her.”

Shooting in Chandigarh took Ashima back to her parents’ roots. Since Ashima grew up in Hyderabad, she had Telugu friends and watched Telugu movies. “I really liked films like Shiva and Kshana Kshanam when RGV was at his peak,” she says. Summer vacations were spent in Chandigarh.

Ashima wasn’t inclined to make a career out of films. She studied Latin American Literature in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, before going abroad to pursue her M.Phil. She worked at a cinema hall for a short while and realised filmmaking is what she wanted to do. She landed in Mumbai, in due course went on to assist Shimit Amin for Ab Tak Chappan and Chak De before assisting Imtiaz Ali for Rockstar. “It’s been a long journey,” she says. And having waited this long to direct her own film, she cannot wait to start her second one. “You tend to play safe with your first film and wonder whether the audience will accept you. Having seen the film, I am confident and want to start my second film soon,” she says.