By Joel Hall
Before moving to Riverdale 30 years ago and launching the New South Package Store, Lata Chinnan was a member of India's first women's field hockey team.
In 1974, she competed in the first Women's Field Hockey World Cup in Mandelieu-la-Napoule, France. The story of her team has been turned into a wildly popular Bollywood film --"Chak De! India" (Lift Up India).
The film, released by Yash Raj Films, became the third-highest-grossing film in India in 2007. Based on real events, the movie tells the story of the Indian national team's battle for the first Women's Field Hockey World Cup.
Chinnan, who has a master's degree in biochemistry from Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), married in 1975 and moved to the United States to be with her husband, Manjeet, who was finishing a post-doctoral degree in agricultural engineering at the University of California at Davis.
The couple came to Clayton in 1978, and she opened the package store in 1984.
Prior to coming to America, Chinnan's life was steeped in field hockey.
"We practically ate and slept field hockey," she said. "I missed all of my family functions ... my sister's wedding. I was just never there."
Chinnan began playing field hockey in high school, in her hometown of Ludhiana, Punjab State, India. Her father was a field hockey player, she said, and she received encouragement from her family to play in a time when Indian women were not encouraged to play sports. The only condition of her parents was that she excel in her academics as well, she said.
"No grades, no field hockey ... I did well at school because I wanted to play," she said. "That happens when you have a passion for something ... you'll do anything."
As a leading scorer, Chinnan quickly moved up to national tournaments, being recognized as India's Player of the Year in the 1972. In 1974, she was one of 15 Indian women selected to compete against 10 international teams in the first Women's World Cup.
While India beat the winning team in a semi-final match, the Netherlands went on to win the championship, leaving India in third place. Members of the team, however, returned to a hero's welcome, meeting with the president and prime minister of India.
A year after the tournament, Chinnan left India and the world of field hockey for America. In 1978, she took a job as a research scientist at the Georgia Mental Health Institute. Her husband assumed a faculty position at the University of Georgia's Griffin campus, at the Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement.
In 1984, Chinnan started her business in Riverdale. Aside from a brief stint as an assistant coach at UC Davis, Chinnan had all but left the world of field hockey behind her; that is, until "Chak De! India" went into production.
"I had no idea this movie was coming out until our teammates started calling each other," she said. "[Movie producers] had taken some of our stories."
Chinnan said while the characters in the movie are not historically accurate, their personalities are modeled around true stories. In one instance, Chinnan challenged a coach who wanted her to move from offense to defense. "He wanted to change my position from the forward line to the half line," she said. "I stood up for myself. That was the only time I remembered that I rebelled."
Chinnan said the popularity of the movie created a national resurgence in field hockey. In November of last year, she and her husband traveled back to PAU, where they made a $10,000 donation to the university, the first installment of $100,000 the couple has pledged over the course of 10 years. Half of the money will go toward education, while the offer half will go to PAU's sports programs.
"[PAU] did not have public-private partnerships in place, so this is the first of its kind," said Chinnan. "The whole idea was to get more people involved."
Since her days as a field hockey player, Chinnan has put her energy into Clayton County. Her business provides a $1,000 annual scholarship to Leadership Clayton, and she is active on the boards of several organizations, including Leadership Clayton, Arts Clayton, the Riverdale Downtown Development Authority, and the Clayton State University Foundation.
"I am really passionate about this city and this county," she said. " I feel very fortunate that I chose to make this place my home. I have traveled a lot of the world, and I think that this is the most beautiful place to live."