Australian quick Mitchell Starc landed a late blow on India after the hosts were rolled for 195 on an eventful first day of the Boxing Day Test.
India went to stumps at 1-36 as the tourists endured 50 minutes of supreme fast bowling on the most lively MCG pitch for years.
Starc trapped Mayank Agarwal lbw for a duck to end the first over, evoking memories of India's record collapse in Adelaide last week.
Pat Cummins should have had opener Shubman Gill out in slips in the fifth over, but Marnus Labuschagne put down a fast-moving chance.
Debutant Gill (28 not out) made the most of the let-off, showing poise beyond his 21 years to survive until the close of play alongside Cheteshwar Pujara (7 no).
Despite the late drama, India claimed day-one spoils as they bounced back strongly with a new-look line-up following their first Test disaster.
The MCG pitch has been infamously flat in recent years, but quick Jasprit Bumrah (4-56) and spinner Ravi Ashwin (3-35) took advantage of its pace, spin and bounce for India.
Apart from an 86-run fourth-wicket stand between Labuschagne and Travis Head (38), Australia never looked comfortable as Bumrah, Ashwin and debutant Mohammed Siraj (2-40), heaped on the pressure.
Bumrah cleaned up Joe Burns in the fourth over, before Ashwin claimed makeshift opener Matthew Wade (30) and the prized scalp of Steve Smith in an eventful first session.
Smith was caught at leg-slip off a turning delivery without scoring - the 31-year-old's first Test duck since 2016.
Bumrah had Burns nicking to recalled wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant for a duck, again ramping up pressure on the Queenslander's international future.
Labuschagne successfully appealed an lbw decision and was struck on the helmet, resulting in a lengthy delay, during his innings as he top-scored with 48.
He lamented up to three "frustrating" dismissals but Labuschagne admitted he was unsure what a par-score was on the wicket.
"You know you're going to have to lock in and bat for a long period of time ... this is the art of Test cricket, this is why we all love it," he said.
"It's a continual challenge for bowlers to come up with new ideas to stop batters scoring and that's what (India) did."
Captain Tim Paine was at the centre of some controversy, surviving a contentious run-out decision on six, with many experts believing his bat was behind the line.
But the third umpire's call didn't cost India, with the Australia wicketkeeper dismissed shortly after for 13.
Australia took in an unchanged line-up and Paine opted to bat first after securing a thumping eight-wicket victory in the opening match where India crumbled for a record-low 36.
India made four changes, highlighted by Virat Kohli's forced omission (parental leave), as they aim to level the series at a venue where they comfortably won two years ago.
Pant endured a sloppy start behind the stumps, conceding 10 byes, while Gill, allrounder Ravindra Jadeja and Siraj were also inclusions.
A crowd of 27,615 was at the famous ground with fans returning to the MCG for the first time since the women's Twenty20 World Cup final in March.
Wade rolled his ankle in the field late in the day and will be assessed over the extent of the injury.